To Mend a Shield

This post is actually a revision of a post originally made to the Proper boards. Technically it’s a ret-con, with the content of this post being re-written to jive with Season 1 of City of Heroes. In the timeline – as should be evident by the story content – this post now takes place not long after the team’s confrontation with the Master of Mana.

::Albrook, Number 18 Train::

Awkwardly, Terence Shale made his way through the crowd and onto the train. His eyes darted around in the bright fluorescent ambiance of the train’s interior, finally locking onto the rail map as the doors hissed shut and the train slowly began to slide up to its commuting speed.

He cut his way through the crowded car and stood in front of the route map, first trying to place himself, then tracing with his eyes the path to each stop between himself and his destination.


Shale turned, at first a little startled, but then relaxed. He had instinctively reached for his wristwatch – the one that concealed a Vanguard shield module for when he wasn’t wearing his armor – but smiled and withdrew his hand when he saw who it was.

“Fara,” he said, relieved. “What are you doing here?”

Fara looked at Terry, then laughed. “Do the words ‘working student with no car’ mean anything to you? I’m out in the outside world most of the time these days. Commuting, you know.”

“Oh,” Terence said, “Right.”

There was an awkward pause. “Which isn’t exactly what I’d say about you ever,” Fara said. “What are you doing out and about, instead of boxing with Roxanne or sitting through a samurai flick with Osprey?”

“Hmm?” Terence said. “Oh. You know. Cabin fever, I guess. Figured I’d go out, maybe run some errands for Roxanne. Do some shopping.”

“You’re hopping a train to go shopping?”

Terry paused. “Well,” he said, faltering, “Not for like, you know, groceries. … Her toaster oven broke. Osprey overdid a grilled cheese, and there was a fire – wasn’t pretty. I’m getting her a nice new one from a specialty shop downtown.”

Fara looked at Terry. “… Downtown? Did you realize you’d gotten on the wrong train? The way you’re going is opposite from downtown-way.”

Terry looked at the map, and laughed nervously. “Well,” he said, “I’ve only even ever been on the Albrook trains once. And then Roxanne was with me.”

“You’d think a superhero would at least know where he’s going when he’s out and about town,” Fara said. Then, realizing that she was having a conversation in public with a fellow secret-identity-having person: “And by superhero, of course I mean that metaphorically. Because… have I ever told you you’re my hero, Terry?”

Terry seemed to miss both the flub and the save; he was looking at the map, distractedly. “Sorry, did you say something Fara?”

Fara shook her head. “… It’s nothing, don’t worry about it. Hey, let me help you find a train that’s getting you where you need to go. I bet you can get off at the next stop and re-route yourself without too much trouble.”

Terry smiled. “That’s okay, Fara… I wouldn’t want to –”

“Oh please. It’s the least I can do. Here, let’s figure this out.” Fara approached the map. Terry seemed oddly panicked at her interceding, but didn’t make a scene by stopping her. The map was a complex knot; in Albrook, the trains were a massive grid, with the trains going one way labeled by letters, and the ones going the other way numbers; the intersections were given by a coordinate. “You probably want to get off here, at Lenart Boulevard junction – that’s C18. One stop up the line. You can catch the C train there, that’ll curve around and bring you back to Grand Army Loop at C6. Most of the people will get off there but you’re gonna stay on for the next three stops. Then get off here, where you hit the Gold Line. That’s Swordsun Way station, or station D12… hey, where was this shop of yours anyway?”

“Hmm? Oh, I… don’t worry, I think I can find my way from there,” Terence said, smiling.

“You sure? Five minutes ago you didn’t even realize you were on the wrong train.”

“I’m fine,” Terry said quickly. “Just wasn’t prepared for how hassle-ridden a trip to buy a new toaster oven would be.”

Fara looked at Terry. “Are you okay, Terry? You look… It feels like something’s not right with you.”

“Totally fine, Fara,” Terry said, an edge of annoyance in his voice. “Told you: toaster stress. Nothing more.”

The train slid to a halt, and the doors hissed open.

“This is Lenart,” Fara said.

Terry smiled. “Yeah?”

Fara looked at him. “Yeah, your stop, Terry.”

“Oh,” Terry said. “… I guess I’ll be getting off then.”

Terry moved toward the door, and shoved his hands in his jacket pockets. “Seeya, Fara.”

“Seeya,” Fara said, watching Terry go, as he disappeared into the bustling crowd.

Terry moved quickly, doubling back around the crowd and heading for the rear of the train he’d just gotten off of. He looked over his shoulder to see if Fara could still see him. Confident she could not, he ducked back aboard the train just as the doors slid shut.

::Roxanne’s Apartment, Albrook::

As usual for a Friday night, Fara went straight from her last class to Roxanne’s place. No sooner had Fara walked in the door to Roxanne’s place than the phone started to ring.

“I’ve got it,” Fara announced, as she dropped her bag on a table near the front door and moved toward the wall-mounted handset near the entrance to the kitchen.

A rush of air moved past her, and Fara’s combat instincts stopped her just short of putting her face in the path of a whirring shuriken. The star stuck into the mahogany-finished wood panelling of the wall with a dull thud. In almost the same instant, a figure emerged from the shadows and, with unfathomable speed, swept up the wall like a mass of semi-solid smoke, then solidified and perched upside down on the ceiling.

“It’s probably for me,” Osprey said, revealing the handset clutched between his feathery fingers, “I’ve been expecting a call all day.”

Fara sighed. “Roxanne is going to kill you for sticking your ninja darts in her walls.”

“It is of no consequence,” Osprey said, “For soon, I shall be employed, and I shall be able to re-panel Roxanne’s lovely home with the spoils of my very gainful employment. Soon, young Mana Knight… very soon. All according to my plan.” The Lancer put the receiver to his ear. “Zodsdottir residence, Osprey speaking.”

Fara sighed and moved down the hall. A musty old book on the Trials of Salamando was waiting for her in the room Roxanne had set aside as a library. (even though Osprey had asked to use it as a bedroom, but all [except for Osprey!] agreed it would be best if the ex-ZAPS agent slept on the couch until he actually got a job) As if her internship and studying for classes weren’t enough, Roxanne had her reading up on her ancient mystical lore. “Mana Knights have homework now!?” was Fara’s incredulous response. Her protest fell upon decidedly unsympathetic demi-godly ears.

On the way, Fara passed by Terry’s room. The door was shut, but Fara wondered if Terry was even home from his outing yet. The poor guy had looked so lost on the train earlier… she almost wanted to go looking for him, to make sure he didn’t wind up getting all turned around on the rails again. At the very least, she decided to see if maybe he was in his room, so she approached and gave a gentle knock on the door.

“Terry?” Fara asked. “You there?”

There was no response. Maybe he’d just come home and crashed? His sleeping patterns weren’t exactly regular – not since their confrontation with the Master. She slowly, carefully twisted the doorknob and opened it just a crack. Light from the hallway poured into a darkened room. As Fara peered within, she could plainly see the room was empty, and it likely had been all day.

Leaving Terry’s room, Fara went on ahead to the library, retrieved the Trials of Salamando and then toted the heavy Elementalist tome back to the living room. If she was going to be forced to do yet more reading, she decided she’d do it with the TV blaring in the background, so she fully intended to stake out the couch as her territory for the rest of the evening.

She found Osprey perched on one of Roxanne’s poulterchairs, looking decidedly forlorn.

“… How’s the job hunt?” Fara asked.

“Well,” Osprey said, “I am still waiting to hear back from a Splatdonald’s across town. The interview was… promising.”

“… You’re gonna be flipping burgers now?” Fara said, with a mixture of sympathy and disappointment in her voice.

“Not exactly,” Osprey said. “Few are aware of it, but Splatdonald’s is a major Tasnican corporation, and they do dabble in covert black ops and corporate espionage.” He paused. “Of course, in the spy world, working for Splatdonald’s clandestine service pretty much is the equivalent of flipping burgers anyway…” the Lancer sighed and rested his head on his fist.

“I see,” Fara said. “Well, who was that on the phone?”

“Oh. It was Roxanne,” he said. “She told me to tell you she will be a little late tonight.”

Fara cast a glance back at the shuriken jutting out of the wall. “Lucky for both of us,” she said. “Hey, have you seen Terry today?”

“Only this morning, when he sat on my legs to tie his shoes before he left,” Osprey said, with a sigh. “Just once I wish I could sleep in. Just once.”

“I ran into him on the train,” Fara said. “You know, on his mission downtown to replace the toaster oven.”

“Toaster oven?”

Fara blinked. “Well, yeah. You torched it with grilled cheese and it broke, he said.”

“He was lying,” Osprey said, “And you don’t need my finely honed insight as an experienced field agent for ZAPS to tell you that – although it surely does not hurt!”

“Lying?.. What?”

“Consider the following,” Osprey said, turning to Fara and ticking off the points on his fingers. “First, as you well know, I am a master of the cullinary arts in addition to the arts of espionage, and chief among my cooking talents is my specialized mastery of the art of the toaster oven. Anyone who knows me knows this to be incontrovertibly true. Second, you say Terry was heading downtown. Everyone knows that, in Albrook, one need only go as far as the Toaster District to find the highest quality toasters and toaster ovens in the Web of Worlds. Even Terry must know this… but, perhaps he did not, and perhaps he was going downtown due to sheer ignorance. But consider my third point, the most damning of all: Osprey is lactose intolerant. A grilled cheese sandwich would be enough to put me on the toilet for half a day – or more.”

The Lancer crossed his arms and looked down his beak at the Mana Knight, regarding her coldly.

“You, my young friend… have been deceived. But to what end, I wonder?..”

Just then, the phone rang. Osprey’s eyes widened.

“I must go,” he said, standing quickly. As he threw a smoke pellet to the ground, he stated: “I am the night!!”

::Roxanne’s Apartment, Albrook (later that night)::

Terry quietly shut the front door behind him and made his way for the stairs.

Another day, another lead… But again, not a lot of luck.

He crept softly, carefully into the apartment. He wondered why he even bothered sneaking in at such a late hour: the only one who’d hear him was Osprey, and he was a really sound sleeper (Terry had even accidentally sat on his legs that morning when he went to the couch to tie his shoes – the old bird barely even moved).

Suddenly, Terry stopped mid-creep. Something didn’t feel right. His eyes weren’t adjusting to the darkness the way they should have been… the shadow felt even thicker than normal. He stopped, and listened.

Listened. Perfectly still. Nothing.

He sighed and took a step forward, only to be met by a sudden rush to the head. He swayed and reached up a hand to feel his forehead. The world was spinning, and then, suddenly, the ground rushed up to meet him. He felt – but could not see – lights turning on all around him, and hands roughly grabbed at his body. He wanted to reach for his Vanguard watch, but he couldn’t feel his hands.

Then, suddenly, he felt someone whisper in his ear: “Don’t do anything foolish, lad… or I’ll be forced to melt your face.”

When Terry came to, he was tied to one of the poulterchairs in the middle of the living room. Standing around him were people he recognized: Roxanne, Fara, Osprey and Eleod.

“… Os?” Terry asked, shaking out his head and looking up at Osprey. “What’s going on, Osprey?”

“We just want to talk to you, Terry,” Osprey said. He sighed. “Okay, I think we need to explain. See, you were out and about for movie night earlier, and it was this old Esperian horror movie, ‘Body Takers 3,’ or whatever… and we all got paranoid and decided you were probably taken by the Body Takers, so. Some of us thought it’d be a good idea to tie you to a chair until we could prove you’re really you.”

Terry pulled against his bonds, his muscular arms straining the chair with audible creaks. The poulterchair shifted in response, forcibly holding its arms in place against Terry’s struggling. The other poulterchairs exchanged worried glances as Terry continued to struggle.

Roxanne and Eleod looked at each other.

“You sure that’ll hold him?” Eleod asked.

“My poulterchairs are the ancient works of a master Taznikanze runic enchanter,” Roxanne said, “They could hold a Reklar.”

“Not if he has mutant alien Body Taker strength,” Osprey observed.

“What’s the meaning of this?” Terry asked. “Is this some kind of joke?”

“Did you find what you were looking for downtown, Terry?” Fara asked, crossing her arms and taking a step forward. “Find that toaster oven?”

Terry relaxed his arms. “They were sold out of the model I wanted.”

Roxanne shook her head. She snapped her fingers, and Bim hopped out from the kitchen. Sitting atop his stool-like body, tethered to some unseen outlet in the kitchen by a long white extension cord, was Roxanne’s toaster oven. With an overly-dramatic sweep of her hand, she pressed a button on the face of the toaster oven. It began ticking loudly, and the heating element inside slowly glowed a warm orange-red.

“Dun dun DUNNN,” Bim said.

Roxanne turned from the demonstration and looked back at Terry. “Come on, Shale… Just tell us what’s up. You’ve been going out almost every day. The toaster story is just the beginning. And an obvious fabrication.”

“It’s the Body Takers!” Osprey whispered.

Terry sighed and hung his head.

“If you don’t talk,” Eleod said, “Roxanne has told me I’d have to force my way into your head. That is something you may not like, boy. It’ll very likely melt your face.”

Fara grabbed the dwarf by his shoulder. “No. Face. Melting,” she said. “Gods, what is wrong with you!?”

Eleod grumbled. “I’ve never known a Mana Knight who didn’t enjoy a good face-melt,” he said.

“That won’t be necessary,” Terry said. He looked up. “Fara. I’m… sorry for lying to you. I know, it was a stupid lie. But I didn’t want you to get involved.”

“Get involved with what?”

"When Bekkler sent me to Mana – before we met up in Egmont – he said he was setting me on the path to repair Shiru… the spirit I was bound to, the one who lived in my shield and gave me my powers. At first I thought, maybe the battle in Egmont was where it’d happen. I’d fight, be redeemed… roll music and credits. Right?..

“But time went by. Nothing. Then I figured, maybe I need to stick with the Mana Knight. Maybe she and Roxanne are the key. Maybe with them I’ll find my path. And I thought we were onto something, with what we’ve been doing here in Albrook together. Roxanne and I shut down the Pyra Syndicate when it came to town. We fought Prism-Man, and that was… weird, but necessary. And then the Master…”

Terry looked down at his hands, then back up at the friends who were gathered around him.

“I feel… empty, Fara. Devoid. Ruined. I’m useless, a shade of what I used to be. Everything I am is wrapped up in a suit of power armor and a couple of gravitic beat-sticks. And as strong as I am in that armor, I got absolutely plowed-over when we fought the Master. That’s not who I’m supposed to be… who the Shield is. I’m not the Shield anymore, and I want to be him again. Every day that passes I feel farther from repairing my bond with Shiru, not closer like Bekkler said.”

Terry shifted in his chair. "Maybe I’m impatient. But I just don’t know what to do. I don’t know whether I’m supposed to just be waiting for my cue, or if I’m supposed to take matters into my own hands and go out looking for destiny. But given the choice, going out and doing something at least makes me feel somewhat less worthless.

“I figured… we’re in Albrook now. Everything in the Web passes through this place. Somebody here ought to know something that’ll help me. So, I’ve been hopping the train and going all over town. The Mystic Ward, mostly… though when Fara caught me, I was actually going to see an old fortune teller who lives near the Toaster District.”

“AHA!” Osprey cried, leaping from the shadows and pointing an accusing finger at Terry. “… I knew it…”

The phone rang then. Everyone in the room stopped and listened.

“… I’ll get it,” Osprey said, as he darted out of the living room.

Terry continued: “So far, nothing. I bring them the warped and broken pieces of my shield, but they just look at me apologetically, or else refer me to someone else who also can’t help.” He sighed. “So, that’s it. I’ve been trying to get my super back. But I’ve been trying to do it alone. Because… well. Because. That’s why.”

Fara took a step forward. “Terry…”

“Don’t,” Terry said. “Just don’t, Fara. This is my… thing, my quest, whatever you wanna call it. It’s something I have to do, and I have to do it alone.”

“… Says who?” Roxanne asked. “Come on, boy. The macho thing just doesn’t suit you.”

“You don’t understand,” Terry said.

“Why a grown man with a Valkyrie, a Mana Knight and a coupld of shadow mages for friends would be such a self-absorbed and emotionally arrested man-child and insist on pursuing some mystical wild goose without asking for help? Yeah, Terry, you’re right. In all my centuries of living and gathering wisdom, I can’t begin to understand that.”

Terry scowled at the Valkyrie. “This is my penance, Roxanne. I have to own it. And I can’t do that if I drag the whole team along with me.”

Fara walked around behind Terry. She manifested the Mana Sword, and cut his bonds. Putting the sword away again, she reached out and helped Terry come to his feet. As Terry stood, the poulterchair skittered away and was greeted by its fellows, who fawned over it and inspected its arms and back for lasting injury.

“You’re not dragging anybody anywhere,” she said, her hands still on his arm as he looked down at her. She smiled up at him. “But we’re going to help you anyway.” Fara paused. “But, like, not this week. I’ve got a paper to write and a couple of deadlines at work and my boss is being a real bitch to me lately.”

“Yeah, this week isn’t good for me either,” Roxanne said, “One of the other professors is doing a symposium, and if I want to remain in good standing I sort of have to attend. And attending doesn’t just mean showing up, I have to actually read this blow-hard’s book and be prepared to ask halfway intelligent questions.”

“Well, don’t look at me,” Eleod said, “This week is the Festival of Eternal Darkness. I’m busy.”

Osprey walked back in. He looked as dour and disappointed as ever.

“Osprey?” Fara asked, “How’s this week for you? Feel like helping Terry with his penance and stuff?”

“Splatdonald’s turned me down,” Osprey said. “… I’m gonna go make a grilled cheese. C’mon, Bim.”

NOTE: Those email links are obvious fakes. Please don’t click the email addresses in Osprey’s emails.

Subject: Re: Any word yet?


sorry i didnt get back to you sooner. at this time rfia has no need of your services. please stop emailing me.


ossieboy wrote:

Hey Bill, I was just wondering how if you guys had decided anything yet. As I
stated during
my interview, I’m ready to start immediately but I would need a little bit of an advanced
notice so that
I can make travel arrangements and let the people I’m living with know I’ll be relocating
to T-port.

If there’s anything else RFIA needs from me, please do let me know. I can re-fax my letters
of rec in case
they didn’t come through the first time.

Thanks again!


From: MailerDAEMON@hostx18.root-name-server.on
Subject: Mail Delivery Failure

This message was created automatically by mail delivery software.

A message that you sent could not be delivered to one or more of its
recipients. This is a permanent error. The following address(es) failed:
unrouteable mail domain “

------ This is a copy of the message, including all the headers. ------

Received: from ([26.199.999.96x] helo=[889.99.9.909])
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Subject: Re: Re: Re: We know what you want
X-Mailer: Berry eMailer (3.460.7)

Hey, S31 guys? This is Osprey, you emailed me a while back. I’d like to give this unique opportunity a second look. I will be at the Drunken Sailor tavern, as instructed in your original email, this coming Friday night at 9pm. wrote:

That is regrettable. Thank you for your time, and the best of luck in your
job search.

ossieboy wrote:

Although I appreciate your interest in hiring me and am grateful for the offer, I am
still exploring
other job options and regret to inform you that I have chosen not to accept this
position at
this time. wrote:

It is with great interest that we learned of your desire for employment. We
are prepared
to offer you an interview discussing terms of employment. After being used
up and discarded
like a worthless outdated tool by your previous employers, we are hopeful
that you have
seen the light and have decided to come in from the cold and join the side
of the common
man everywhere.
If interested, go to the Drunken Soldier tavern just outside of GAHQ. Order
one shot of
Uncle Joe’s Own Extra Strength Vodka. You will receive a special lighter.
Go outside.
Someone on the corner will ask you for a light; use the lighter you have just
received. A
limousine will then arrive and transport you to a location of our interview.
In addition to paying for your skills as an agent, we would also reward you
for information pertaining to your previous employer. Compensation is available
in marks or
geld pieces.











Subject: Re: Greetings


Thank you for your interest in the Kuvallan Intelligence Agency. Unfortunately, we do not have any openings in the field/position about which your last message inquired. Per our organization’s protocol, we will keep your application and resume on file for a period of 5 (five) years in case our situation changes. At that time, we will contact you and apprise you of the date and time of your interview.

Again, we do thank you for your interest. Please be advised that you need not contact us again.

Warmest regards,

Kyler Kumort,
Assistant Deputy Personnel Director
Kuvallan Intelligence Agency

ossieboy wrote:

To whom it may concern:

My name is Osprey, and until recently I was a premier infiltration and
field intel
operative for the Zealan Arts Preservation Society, employed as part
of the Kingdom
of Guardia’s clandestine services program.
Due to the change in management within ZAPS, I chose to leave the
and seek employment elsewhere. It is for this reason that I have
chosen to
write you and offer my services to the glorious nation of Kuvalla,
a country
for which I have always had nothing but the most profound respect
and admiration.
Attached you will find my resume, several letters of recommendation
and a completed
copy of the applicants’ quiz found on your website. I think you will be
impressed by
some of my unique answers, as well as my innovative approach to the
intelligence game.
As I state in my resume, I am a team-oriented, objective-driven agent
who thrives
in an atmosphere conducive to success, the latter of which I was responsible
for helping
to create at ZAPS prior to my departure.
In closing, I do hope to hear from you soon, and I look forward to having
a robust
interview with you. I am currently located in Albrook, but am willing to travel.



Subject: Any luck?

Hey Os, it is I, Warmoogle! Do you remember me? We met at the Albrooker SpyFair 46. Anyway I was just wondering if you had any leads on work. I just got turned down by KIA and Splatdonald’s and am very close to just chugging a bottle of sleeping pills so I never have to wake up again.

Why, oh why, has the Web forsaken the Warmoogle!?!? Why!?!?!? I was great once. I was!! Really! Somebody out there must take the Warmoogle seriously!!!

Subject: Re: Online Job Application Submission #44682

Mr. Osprey:

Thank you for your interest in Forge Mechanicals, a Tasnican AAA Corporation.

Long a leader among Tasnican corporations in technology innovation, Forge is always looking out for the best and the brightest to help lead our company into the future. Your submission of an electronic resume and job application is vital to that effort.

Unfortunately, at this time we are unable to process your application further or commit to holding an interview due to transitions in leadership and corporate reshuffling. The department(s)/position(s) you selected to be considered for are currently being reevaluated or merged with other parts of Forge Mechanicals, and are not currently accepting new applicants at this time. We apologize for whatever inconvenience this may cause you.

Again, we thank you for your interest. Do not hesitate to re-apply after six months’ time.


Thom Roslin
Deputy Assistant Human Resources Manager
Forge Mechanicals, a Tasnican AAA Corporation


“You should’ve come with me right off, kid,” Eleod said, leading a small procession comprised of Terry, Osprey, Roxanne and Fara through the streets of Albrook. “Would’ve saved yourself a lot of aimless wandering-around. I am intimately familiar with the mystical population of this city. I’ll have your answers before you can say ‘free enchants by the auction house!’”

“So where exactly are we going anyway?” Roxanne asked.

“I know a guy,” Elleod said, “An appraiser, Ammit. Been around as long as I can remember, and maybe even longer than that. Lived underground when the Vectoral Empire held Albrook… like others looking to avoid Imperial entanglements. Ammit’s a fixture of the magic trade in the city. Controls the prices of enchantments, reagents and magic items almost all on his own. He sees things about magical items… and not just what they do, the way some appraisers and identifiers do. No, Ammit sees more. He sees the history and the destiny of an item. The prices he sets down include not only the value of a trinket’s magical power, but also the past and future that the item holds. Because sometimes… a high price isn’t just paid in money.” Eleod looked pointedly at Terry. “You give him that bundle of dreamstone shards of yours, he might tell you something worth knowing. Then again, he might say it’s only worth 5 geld and tell you to shuffle along. He may even offer to buy it from you. But the thing about Ammit… the thing that gives him so much clout among the peddlers in mystic circles around here… he never lies, and he’s never wrong.”

The smell of incense hung heavy in the air around the Mystic Ward of Albrook. The group had been following Eleod around for at least an hour after they got off the train. Osprey was unused to being away from access to his email for so long; he was twitching with anxiety. So he very naturally came by the urge to say the following:

“… Are we there yet?”

“Clam up a second,” Eleod barked. “Let me think…” The dwarf stopped as the group reached an intersection of paths, where an impromptu marketplace had been set up. Barkers stood in front of their stalls, and street magicians were performing tricks. There was more than one fortune teller among the stalls who recognized Terry from a previous visit; each secretly hoped the lost young man would prove to be a case of return patronage, and so they called out to the group, barely distinct amid the din of the market of mystics.

Eleod grinned. “There,” he said, pointing to a quaint little shop whose shingle had no words, but was instead decorated by an image of a set of scales, upon which an inverted pentagram was being weighed against a lopsided heart.

“The Judge’s Scales,” he said, “Ammit’s shop. Let’s go.”

The party followed after Eleod, as he threw open the door (which resonated with a pleasant door chime) and filed inside the tiny storefront. The interior was small, and lined along all four walls by shelves that stretched to the ceiling. On one side, opposite the door, was a long counter; between the counter and the door, more shelves dividing the shop into aisles. Every inch of flat surface, on the shelves and on the counter, was filled with books, scrolls, small boxes of spell components and reagents, potion flasks and other odds and ends. And where there were items lacking a proper place on one of the shop’s shelves, they formed piles on the floor.

A wizened old man behind the counter, with a beard down to his feet and a pointed wide-brimmed hat, arched a bushy eyebrow as Eleod entered the shop. From some unseen corner of the shop, a friendly-looking brown-feathered owl swooped down to light on the old man’s shoulder.

Fara regarded the old man. “… this is your guy?” she asked quietly, then shrugging. “Well, I guess he looks the part…”

A bony hand emerged from the folds of the old man’s gray robes, as he reached up to scratch his chin through his beard. With each scratch of his long, aged fingernails, a small spray of dandruff flew out to fill the air around him.

“Just let me do the talking,” Eleod said, as he cleared his throat and stepped forward. He approached the counter. “We’re here to see the Judge. What’s his schedule like today, Ted?”

The old man groaned, and turned around slowly, reaching out with his shriveled, near-skeletal hand for a lever on the wall behind him. Straining his aged, atrophied muscles with a labored groan, he pulled the lever, which let out a rusty creak and a small plume of dust. As he did so, one of the bookshelves on a far wall raised up, slowly, rumbling as it did and shaking every shelf across the storefront. When it was finished, a torchlit tunnel leading downward was revealed.

Eleod smiled. He turned to the group and whispered: “We’re in luck! Looks like he can see us.” He turned back to the old man. “Thanks again, Ted!!”

The old man mumbled something inaudible, as was momentarily wracked by a fit of dry coughing before steadying himself on his gnarled staff. The owl let out a pleasant chirp.

Without another word, Eleod lead the group into the tunnel. The passage moved downward, and then twisted around, at one point becoming a downward-leading set of stairs before twisting round again and going a different direction. Soon, the rough-hewn quality of the cavern gave way to worked stone tiles and walls. It began to resemble less a cave than a tomb.

At last, the passage opened up into a large, proper room. The walls were lined with statues, depicting men with the heads of hawks, jackals, crocodiles and herons. Each one held a shining green stone in its hands, which seemed to contain an inner, burning red flame.

Sitting at the far end of the room, on a large gilded throne, was an enormous beast. It was a composite creature, with the forequarters of a leopard, the hindquarters of a hippopotamus, the head of a crocodile fringed by a thick lion’s mane. Stretching from the creature’s back were a pair of black bat’s wings, which were folded against the monster’s flanks.

At the group’s entry, the creature’s head turned to meet them, and its eyes flashed red. It sat up on its haunches and spread its wings majestically.

Fara, instinctively, manifested the Mana Sword, but Roxanne reached out a hand to stop her from doing anything rash. “Put it away, Fara,” she said. “This… creature… must be Ammit.”

“Indeed,” the monster spoke, its voice reverberating through the large, vacant chamber. “I am Ammit. And you…” Ammit’s eyes fell upon the Mana Sword. “… you are the Mana Knight. I need not even use my scales to tell that much.”

“Yes,” Eleod said, nervously, shooting a harsh glance in Fara and Roxanne’s direction. “You’ll have to forgive my younger friends, Ammit.”

Roxanne cleared his throat. “Younger?” she said.

Eleod ignored the valkyrie. “We have come to beseech you your services, mighty Judge Ammit. Grant us your wisdom in appraising an item we have brought for your scales.”

Ammit stood and leapt down from his throne. He was easily six feet tall at the shoulder, and his enormous tooth-filled maw was large and strong enough to snap any one member of the group in half. So when the beast moved, the group cleared out of the way quickly.

Osprey and Eleod, being magic-users themselves, seemed somewhat less anxious in Ammit’s presence. Osprey, in fact, felt something strange about Ammit… something he couldn’t place. Until he took a closer look at the green stones that the statues in the chamber were holding.

“… He’s an Esper,” Osprey said.

Eleod turned. “Yes,” the Dwarf replied, “One of the few that remains in our Web, and that tolerates mortal company. We’d best be thanking him profusely before we leave…”

“It is not necessary,” said Ammit, having heard the exchange, in a sudden and booming voice that shook all those present. He extended one of his leopard paws in the direction of the far wall, and with a shimmer of magic a set of enormous scales appeared, manifesting out of thin air. “Bring forth your item, and set it on the right side of the scales.”

Eleod stepped aside, and turned to Terry. “Go on, boy,” he said. “Show him your ruined shield.”

Terry reached into his backpack and pulled out the warped remains of Shiru. The flicker of the torchlight against the twisted dreamstone caught Ammit’s eyes, and he turned his head to watch the fragments as they turned in Terry’s hands.

Terry set the twisted metal bits down on the tray, and stepped back. The scales did not move.

When Terry was clear, Ammit sat down on the floor, and closed his eyes. He reached up one of his paws, and placed it on his chest. Pressing inward, his paw sank into his flesh bloodlessly. Ammit dug into himself with his own paw – all the while showing no signs of discomfort or pain – and when he withdrew his paw again, he held within it a glowing green sphere not unlike the orbs of magicite held by the statues along the walls of his chamber.

The glowing stone floated, seemingly of its own volition, over toward the left side of the scales, and set down onto the tray. Both the broken shield and the stone flared with light, and as they did, Ammit’s ruby eyes shot open. They were blank, burning red pinpoints, drinking in the light given off by both the magicite stone and the broken shield.

When the light faded, Ammit lunged forward with his crocodile jaws and snatched up the magicite stone off the scales, swallowing it whole. He looked at the shield still resting on the scales, and then looked at Terry.

“Terence Shale stays,” Ammit said. “The rest will go.”

“Yes, mighty Judge Ammit,” Eleod said, bowing low and walking backwards toward the tunnel entrance. “As you say, oh Wise Master of the Mysteries… Great Seer of all the Unknown… Potent Illucidator of –” the Dwarf looked up at Roxanne, Fara and Osprey. “Everyone who doesn’t want to get eaten by the powerful Esper, please follow my lead.”

Roxanne sighed. “Come on Fara. Better do like the Dwarf says.” The valkyrie bowed to Ammit respectfully (though without Eleod’s melodrama) and then turned to leave. Osprey, likewise, showed obeissance before walking out. Fara lingered.

“… Terry?” she asked.

Terry nodded. “Go on, Fara. I’ll be out in a minute.”

Fara smiled. “… Okay.” She looked at Ammit. “Okay, I’m going. Thank you, Mister Ammit. It means a lot, you helping my friend.”

When she was gone, Ammit turned his gaze on Terence Shale.

“You have… interesting companions,” the Esper said.

“That’s one way of saying it,” Terry said. “But they’ve never let me down before.”

Ammit turned and looked at the statues, holding aloft their magicite orbs. “Treasure them,” he said. “You will be less than what you are when they are gone. And you will need them in what is to come.”

“To repair Shiru?”

“That and more,” Ammit said. “Normally I read items for their monetary value, as I am sure Eleod Vrinnicus explained.”

“He also said you read… more,” Terry said.

“I do,” Ammit replied. “But I do not always divulge all that I see. That is a restraint that I have learned over many long ages, lifetimes to a human. It is a part of the responsibility I have for the power I possess. A responsibility that I see is hard-learned for some.”

Terry averted his eyes from the Esper. “Yes,” he agreed.

“You are filled with rage, and pain,” Ammit said. “Once, you had a defense against all that negativity. You had a shield. But now, no longer.”

“For years now,” Terry said.

“An eyeblink in the grand cosmic scheme,” Ammit said, “But an eternity for you, I am sure.”

Ammit circled Terry, his movements like those of a large cat circling its prey. His fiery eyes scanned Terry, up and down, reading the story of his tattered soul.

“Your spirit is bound to the ruined shield,” Ammit said, “But also to the armor you wear. The plastic suit built for you by the Tasnican Abdiel Zion.”

“… My Seraphim suit?” Terry asked.

“It could not have been forseen,” Ammit said, “Not by Diamond. Not by Bekkler. As clever as Zion is, as wise as Bekkler is, neither man is perfect. Neither could have known what your pairing with Seraphim armor would have resulted in. For Zion was ignorant of the process which made you the Shield, and Bekkler did not know of Zion’s formula for his precious plastics.”

Ammit came to sit down in front of Terry again. He wrapped himself in his wings and leaned forward. "You are volatile as you are now, incomplete and compromised. The armor changes you so long as you continue to wear it. And the longer you are deprived of your connection to Shiru’s spirit, the more of your soul is lost forever. Yet at this stage, you cannot repair Shiru without your armor.

"You must take both your shield and armor North, to the Mountains of the Phoenix, a place of cosmic rebirth. The energies of life are strong there, but so are the energies of death. You will climb the southwesternmost face of the mountains, toward their heart. For a full day you will climb, and then you will chance upon an entrance into the rock. There, you will find a craftsman with enough skill to repair your shield, as it must be repaired for you to be whole again. To do this, he must re-form the dreamstone, but also meld it together with the plastic from your armor.

“It will not be easy to convince him to do this for you. He may demand a sacrifice. He may demand nothing and simply dismiss you. You may be forced to humble yourself. But remember that he is your only chance at restoration. Breaker and mender both.”

Ammit raised his head, looking down his snout at Terry. “Do you understand all you must do?”

“… I think so,” Terry said. “… What about my friends? Should I bring them with me?..”

“As I said,” Ammit replied, “You will need them in what is to come.”

Terry nodded. “Thank you, Ammit… I just wish I’d found you earlier.”

“You found me when you were meant to find me,” Ammit said, “With the help of your friends.”

Ammit’s wings unfolded, and the Esper walked slowly back to his throne. With a leap, he was back upon it, and he laid down. As he resumed his comfortable, lounging position, the magic scales disapppeared.

“Go now,” he said. “Here ends the reading.”

::Boderick’s Trail, Albrooker Plain::

The Phoenix Mountains were quite a ways away from the city of Albrook. By car, it would be at least two days of straight driving, plus the trek into the mountains themselves, and despite their earlier pledges that they would help Terry no matter the cost, neither Roxanne, nor Fara, nor Eleod could take the time away from their jobs or obligations to accompany him.

Osprey, however, being as he still had no job, had nothing but time on his hands, and so gladly went along with Terry on his quest.

The two packed whatever they thought they might need for the journey into a small rental car that Roxanne had helped Terry acquire. The car was a small two-door hatchback dubbed the Packer by Kuat Motors. It wasn’t nearly as nice as Roxanne’s Kuat Valkyrie, but it had heated seat cushions (which was what ultimately sold Osprey on the whole venture).

“Thanks for tagging along, Os,” Terry said, once they were underway and driving toward the city limits. “You’re not gonna be in too bad a shape away from your email for so long, are you?”

“Not to worry,” Osprey said, “For you see, I am as resourceful as I am cunning. Look what I picked up last night in the Toaster District.”

“… A toaster?” Terry asked.

“No,” Osprey said (although he had, in fact, purchased a solar-powered camping toaster for the trip [since he was in the Toaster District anyway]). “This is an OmniMate 600. The wireless revolution: it’s right here in this car, my friend. It has a sleek, compact design, functions as a phone, pager, personal digital planning device, electronic diary, SMS text-message hub and email checker-slash-sender, and the service plan I picked up will only cost me the same as I’d normally spend on a cup of coffee every morning. It also has a clock that keeps track of time in as many as four different time zones. You hear that? FOUR time zones!! As many as!”

“… Wait, is that your first smartphone, Os?” Terry asked.

Osprey balked. “I did not require one previously. But being forced to accompany you on this journey necessitated that I have a phone. Therefore, wireless revolution.”

“… It’s kinda big,” Terry said, glancing over at the chunky device Osprey was turning over in his talons. “You know they make them much smaller these days, right?”

“Wireless revolution!” Osprey repeated, more forcefully this time.

“… Well, it’s about time,” Terry said, his hands resting idly on the wheel. “Welcome to the modern Web, Os.”

“Thanks,” Osprey said, “… And the guy at the wireless store said he’d get back to me sometime today about my job application. Which reminds me! Let’s WIRELESSLY check our electronic mail messages now!”

“You do that,” said Terry.

“… wireless revolution!” Osprey whispered to himself, meaningfully, as he scrolled through the OmniMate 600.

The stretch of highway they were on had been renamed “Boderick’s Trail” only within the last decade. Before that, it didn’t really have a name: it had a numeric designation given to it by the Grand Army as part of the network of roads that facilitated the GA’s deployment and supply lines across the Albrooker continent.

Boderick’s Trail was remarkable because, driving the lonely stretch of road across the blasted ruin of Albrooker Plain, there were no trees. No birds. No animals of any kind, no signs of life that were immediately recognizable unless you happened to pass a car coming the other direction. It was a mute, charred testament to the ruthless efficiency of the Grand Army: the man whose name was now attached to a portion of the Esperian highway system had suffered a loss on these plains, and with that loss went thousands of innocent lives and an entire ecosystem that had only just recovered from the cataclysm decades prior.

“Hmm, that’s odd,” said Osprey, after a few minutes of toying with his OmniMate. “Says there’s no service…”

“Maybe after we get out of the blast zone,” Terry said.

“Yeah, you’re right,” Osprey said. “Hey, wanna see if we can get any radio stations?”

“Feel free,” Terry said, though he secretly would rather have passed the drive in silence.

Osprey leaned forward and flicked on the radio. The drone of static crackled over the speakers, broken up by an insistent whine as the former ZAPS agent adjusted the tuner. To no avail, Osprey scanned the entire dial, searching desperately for any sign of anything being broadcast: a faint tune, a verbal exchange on a talk program, religious services, anything. Maybe even Scandian propaganda broadcast as the highway skirted the border of the OZ. But no, behind layers of static there appeared no evidence of the civilized Web’s media. Just more and more static.

Resigned, Osprey turned off the radio. “Hey!” he said, “I brought one of my mix tapes. Wanna give a listen?”

Terry didn’t. He really, really didn’t. But thankfully: “No tape deck, Os.”

Osprey stared blankly at the console. “No tape deck!?”

Terry laughed out loud. “Figures the guy who JUST got a smartphone is complaining that the car has no tape deck.”

“I mean, come on, though,” Osprey examined the console. “There’s not even a disc player! What gives!? Who did you rent this stupid car from anyhow!?”

“Roxanne and I took the first car I could find with heated seat cushions because I knew that’d sell you on coming along,” Terry said. “You can’t have everything.”

“Boy,” Osprey said, “When Kuat puts out an economy car, they don’t jerk around.” Osprey checked his OmniMate again. He sighed. “Now why wouldn’t this damn thing have service!? Do you think something’s wrong with the network, or what? Am I not even gonna have email like I thought during this trip? Did I just blow three hundred GP on a fancy cell phone that doesn’t even work?”

Terry just shrugged. He hoped that if he said as little as possible, and kept what he did say as non-committal as possible, the conversation would naturally die and Osprey would like, take a nap or something.

“… My life sucks, Terry,” Osprey said, slumping his shoulders and heaving a sigh. “Just… dammit, man. Dammit.”

This was going to be a long ride.

::Phoenix Mountain Campground/RV Park::

The well-worn Packer made its way down the smooth, paved drive and abruptly hit its end, rumbling along the gravel path. Terry slowed as the car approached the campground offices. The grounds were a wide stretch of green lawn, just between the main highway and a small river. The lawn was roughly divided into several lots, each one designated by the presence of a firepit and a short post with an electrical outlet.

Terry didn’t believe the road map could have still been accurate, with a campground situated so close to the edge of the Occupied Zone. Yet here it was, and there were even a few campers already set up and settled in.

That’s when he also happened to see, behind the offices, concealed under a canopy of camouflage netting, a small anti-aircraft gun.

“Ah, Esper,” Terry said aloud to himself.

Terry stepped out of the car, and it felt good to stretch his legs for once. The previous night, he and Osprey had just pulled off to the side of the road and slept in the Packer. Not tonight though, no. Tonight would be a step up: borrowed camping gear from Roxanne’s place on the hard earth, in the cold weather.

Osprey got out of the car, still angrily fussing with his OmniMate 600. This marked the longest period of time yet that Osprey had been without access to his email since he became Roxanne’s permanent houseguest.

“Hey, how ya doin,” came the pleasant voice of the campground manager – a morbidly obese middle-aged woman surrounded by cats. She had one cat resting on her shoulder, one clutched in her arm, and four that circled around her feet as she waddled out to meet the newcomers.

“Not too bad,” Terry said, smiling pleasantly. “How much for a night?”

“Just the two of ya then?” the woman asked, her eyes lingering on Osprey for a moment. “Where y’all from, anyhow?”

“Just up from Albrook,” Terry said.

“Soldiers?” the woman asked.

“No, civilians,” Terry replied. “Here to climb the Phoenix.”

The woman nodded. “Sure sure,” she said. “Don’t see bird-folk like yer friend too often 'round these parts. He a… Kryddaman, is it? From Windland?”

Terry glanced over at Osprey, expecting to give an accounting for himself. But he was occupied trying to get his OmniMate to connect and didn’t seem to be paying attention.

“No, actually he’s from Gate,” Terry said.

“Huh,” the cat lady said, snorting back some phlegm. “I ain’t known they had bird-men in Gate like that. Well, all right. Fer yer car, lot’s 35 GP a night, or 50 for a week. That don’t include shotgun and ammo, that’s extra. Also charge 10 extra if ya start gettin’ mail here.”

“We’re not gonna be here that long,” Terry said, laughing. “Don’t think we’ll need the shotguns either.”

The cat lady shrugged. “Most of our campers feel a lot better sleepin’ with one of my guns, what with bein so close to Scande and all,” she said. “If ya got cash we’n square up right now, and I can point ya to a lot.”

Terry fished his wallet out of his hip pocket, and pulled out a couple of bills. “I think we’ll be here three nights, so… that should cover it.”

The cat lady quickly counted the money, as the cat perched on her shoulder gave a mewling yawn and looked pointedly at Terry and Osprey. “All right,” she said. “Lot twelve, o’er yonder. Have a nice night boys.”

“Thanks,” Terry said politely, as he and Osprey hopped quickly back into the Packer.

“You know,” Osprey said, as Terry drove the Packer down toward the lot that the cat lady had indicated, “Meeting that grossly fat woman really helped put things into perspective for me. All things considered, I got it pretty good. Warm place to sleep, good friends, shadow magic and a mystical katana forged from the frozen final breath of a dying god… I mean, hell, I could have ended up a fat lady running an RV park on the ass end of nowhere. There are a lot worse places to be. It’s pretty good to be me.”

“That’s great, Osprey,” Terry said, as he parked the car on the lot and applied the parking brake. “Glad this trip provided you with some personal growth and perspective.”

“What do you suppose she’s bringing in from owning this lot? After taxes?” Osprey asked, thinking out loud. “I don’t see any other employees around… you think she might be looking for some hired help? Maybe I could leave her my resume. I am certain a man with my very specific set of skills could find a way to be useful in running a campground like this.” Osprey paused, as if lost in thought. Then: “You wanna head out tonight?”

Terry sank back into his seat and sighed. “Are you kidding?” he said. “I’m exhausted. I know it’s not much, but we just bought this little patch of grass, and I say we take tonight to just rest up and enjoy it. We can pack up our gear and head out for the mountain in the morning.”

Osprey nodded. “Okay then. I’ll break out the gear and we’ll throw up the tents.” He paused. “… You… know how to pitch a tent, right Terry?”

Terry shook his head. “You mean they don’t teach you that at spy school?..”

The campground manager held the screen door open for her cats as she moved back into the office. She tossed the money down on the desk and watched out the window as the tiny, beat-up rental car drove over toward the lot she’d given them.

When she saw them start to get settled, she moved away from the front office and toward her apartment in the back. The main living area was dimly lit, all the curtains were drawn. The little light there was was captured in the eyes of many, many more cats that were lounging throughout the room.

All the cat’s eyes fixed on the woman as she entered the room. The cats under her arm, on her shoulder and circling around her ankles left her to join the rest in the darkness.

“You saw 'im,” the woman said, “He looked just like you said 'e would. Ya think we got 'im?”

I am unsure, came several screeching voices at once, a chorus of cat’s meows that somehow twisted in the air to form a mockery of human speech, But if so, he has arrived well ahead of my predictions.

“They said they was gonna climb the mountain,” the woman said.

They did… the cats said, And I sensed tremendous power coming from him… There was a pause. I cannot ignore this. For too long I have waited and watched and guarded this mountain against the Trickster’s return. I will not fall for his ruse this time.

One of the cats moved up along the back of the couch, looking up at a painted deerskin hanging on the wall. The painting depicted a large black bird, locked in struggle with a black cat.

Both the Raven and his companion will die tonight.

Terry was kneeling in front of the fire pit with determination in his eyes.

The last remnants of daylight were fast fading away as the superhero tried, again, to get a fire started.

They had been at it for an hour, having made their first futile attempts at fire-building shortly after discovering that Osprey had accidentally packed only one tent, which the two men would now be forced to share unless one of them was willing to sleep in the Packer again (neither Osprey nor Terry were very keen on this alternative).

“You know,” Osprey said, “If your helmet hadn’t been so beat-to-hell by the Master, you’d have heat-based eye lasers, and we’d have a roaring bonfire by now.”

“… If you were a bit more versatile and knew any fire magic, you could be helping out instead of sitting there cracking wise and being a jerkface,” Terry replied.

The paper that Terry had stuffed under the pile of firewood in the pit blazed with flame. The wood on top of it, however, appeared unimpressed by the makeshift kindling.

“… damn fireproof firewood,” Terry muttered. He stood, and headed over to the trunk of the Packer.

“What are you doing?” asked Osprey.

“The wood you gathered on this side of the river is too damp,” Terry said, popping the trunk and dragging out the big steamer trunk where he’d stored his Seraphim armor. “I’m going to fly over to the other side, into the foothills of the mountains, and see if I can get something drier, before we waste anymore matches or paper.”

Osprey arched a feathery brow, then glanced around at the growing darkness. “… Well, who needs fire, anyway?” he said. “The dark isn’t so bad.”

The Lancer’s head whipped around just then, as he thought he saw movement in the tall grass. Terry laughed.

“Right,” he said. “If you wanna come along, that’d be fine. We’d probably make a bit less noise with you cutting the wood, rather than my bashing down a whole freaking tree with one of my batons.”

He’d only put on his chestplate and repulsor unit, and slid his dented helmet onto his head as he was saying this. When his helm was in place, he flicked on the nightvision scan.

He stopped right where he was, and gripped his batons.

“You see them too?” Osprey asked, backing toward him unsteadily, his hand sliding across the hilt of his sword.

“… they’re just cats,” Terry said. “Maybe they’re just curious.”

All around the two, circling them in their campsite, were hundreds of black cats. Osprey, a shadow-mage, was gifted with the Medinan spell known as “The Eyes of Darkest Night,” but Terry had to rely on the green-screen of his helmet’s nightvision… and even then, the creatures were only outlines. They were growling, a low, menacing sound rumbling from a thousand tiny feline throats. They crept in slowly, taking their time as they moved toward the pair of heroes.

“I really hope this isn’t the end,” Osprey said. “I mean, dying in battle is the aspiration of all great warriors… but killed in a trailer park by a pack of ravenous kittens?..”

One of the cats sprang at them with a meowling battle cry. Terry, in a flash, deployed the Vanguard shield module and swatted the cat out of the air with it. A second cat bounded toward him, and he caught this one with his gravitic baton. The cat squealed and flew, bullet-speed, into a nearby tree, splattering with a wet crunch.

Osprey turned and looked at Terry.

“How about that thing where we don’t kill?” Osprey asked.

“Tell you what,” Terry said, “I promise we’ll meditate on the moral implications of killing a swarm of angry hellcats if we survive the night.”

The pair returned their attention to the gathering army of cats. The cats had stopped their advance after Terry’s display of a willingness to engage in wanton felicide. A few of the ones in front were backing off – but Osprey watched their pattern of movement, and saw very plainly that this was not a retreat. It was a repositioning.

“Very well,” Osprey said, “Then let’s give ourselves plenty of fodder for meditation!”

Spinning in a wide arc with his sword outstretched, Osprey unleashed a wave of shadow energy. The energy tore through a whole segment of the cats, and they screeched in pain as fur and flesh and blood splayed out over the grassy earth.

Frenzied, the cats broke ranks. Some rushed forward to attack, others turned tail and fled. Several of them were clawing and biting at Terry’s un-armored legs, but being mere housecats their claws were rather ineffectual against even Terry’s well-worn jeans. He swatted off one after another, sending them streaking across the sky, howling in agony from the gravitic impact of the Shield’s baton.

Those that charged Osprey were even less fortunate. The former ZAPS agent felt thankful for his sparring sessions with Kamiko as he ducked, dodged and spun around the advances of several inexplicably pissed off cats. His form was perfect; his skills as sharp as ever. He lashed out with his blade where he could, severing little cat paws and heads and tails in a chorus of angry meowls and pitiable death-squeals.

Lights blared from the campgrounds’ main offices as the battle wound down. The cats that had not been repulsed or brutally killed in their attempt on Terry and Osprey’s lives were fleeing toward the office building. And there, storming out from the screen door, was the humongously fat cat woman, holding a flashlight in one hand and a shotgun in the other.

“Oh hey, she’s bringing us one of those shotguns she tried to sell us,” Osprey said. “That’s nice of her… I guess some of the other campers have had problems with these cats, too.”

“Uhh… Os?” Terry said, but before he could finish, the fat lady was screaming and levelling her shotgun.

The Shield quickly grabbed Osprey and swung him around, coming down into a half-crouch to take cover behind the Vanguard shield. They both heard the report of the gun as it went off, and Terry felt the slugs bounce harmlessly off the Vanguard’s energy field.

“I got her,” Osprey said. “Call the play.”

The Shield nodded. “High-Low,” he said. “On three. One.”

“Two…” Osprey replied.

“Three.” Terry rocketed upward, leaving Osprey alone on the ground. Predictably, the fat woman’s flashlight beam followed the big armor-wearing superhero, as she aimed to take another shot.

It was all the distraction Osprey needed. He had drawn a small dart from his hip, took less than a second to aim and then let fly.

Soundlessly, the dart slipped through the air. It caught the woman in her neck, burying itself between chins #3 and #4. With a sputter, she pulled the trigger, firing blindly up into the sky before she toppled over backwards with a jiggly flop.

Terry landed, retracted the Vangurd shield, and looked around to take in the scene. Osprey, emulating the finest of his samurai film heroes, sheathed his sword in a single fluid motion and stood to his full height.

“… I’m not exactly sure I know what just happened here,” Terry said, putting a hand on his helmeted head.

“We were attacked by a mob of cats, we squished a bunch of them, and then I dropped a fat woman,” Osprey explained. “… Don’t worry, she’ll just have a nice nap, and then wake up with a really bad headache and an urge to reevaluate some of her life choices. But, that said, she probably won’t be very receptive to taking my resume now…”

“Maybe we should get to climbing the mountain now,” Terry said, “Before the crazy cat-lady or the other campers wake up and, like, police are called. Or something.”

::Phoenix Mountains, Tzen Region::

“Climb the southwesternmost face for a day… a full day…” Osprey panted. “… So why can’t we use your jetpack again?”

“Because I don’t have enough of a charge to fly both of us up that far for a full day, Os,” Terry said. All things considered, the majority of the strain from the climb was being borne by the Shield’s seraphim battlesuit. Still, even he was beginning to get tired.

It was the dead of night when Terry and Osprey fled from the campgrounds. It was now mid-morning. The two had not stopped, and thanks to the attack of the angry kittens, they had not slept. They were tired and weary, but they pressed on, even despite the fatigue, the desire for sleep, the strain in their legs that begged them to collapse.

“… Think we can stop now?” Osprey asked, pleadingly.

Terry stood straight. “I’ll check…” he pressed a hand to the side of his helmet. Then, his head whipped around. “Nope. We have incoming.”

Osprey drew his sword. The edges of his eyes were ever-so-slightly tinged with blue: he had nearly bled his mana dry as the pair fought up the side of the mountain, enduring constant ambush every hour or so.

“… I hate cats,” Osprey muttered, as from up ahead, a pair of large coeurls and a family of bobcats surged out from behind a wall of scrub. Above them, watching eagerly, as always, was one of the black cats from the night before. Its eyes glowed menacingly as the larger predatory cats fell upon the pair of heroes.

The first coeurl roared and made a leaping pounce for Osprey. Moving in tandem, as they had become well-practiced at over the years of their association, Osprey rolled under as the Shield leapt over, his baton connecting with the side of the big cat’s head. It screeched as it tumbled over, sliding down over a ledge with the force of the Shield’s blow.

As Osprey came up, he swung his blade out in front of him just in time to catch the flailing tentacle of the second coeurl, slicing it off and sending it flopping off to the side. He drew back and backflipped out of the way of three of the bobcats, who were rushing him in the wake of the coeurl’s attack. Mid-arc, sailing head-over-heels, Osprey unleashed a small darkbomb, blasting the feral cats away with a wave of shadowy energy. Osprey winced as the mana left his fingers, nearly losing his balance and his landing. That was it: his last spell. He couldn’t manage any more unless he could get some rest first. From here on out, it was just him and his sword and his wits – not even his stealthy tricks were of much use out in the open, in the full light of day.

Terry was managing far better. He fought them effortlessly, encased as he was in his seraphim armor-shell and fully impervious to his attackers’ natural weapons. As he fought, the other coeurl – the one who had been tossed off the ledge – climbed back into view, none the worse for wear and apparently keen on getting back into it with Terry.

They were the only real danger to Terry here – the coeurls, magical beasts who thrived in the magitek-blasted ecosystems of the Esper dimension. Their tentacles and command of deadly shadow magics had the potential to harm even seraphim-armored Terry, if he missed a beat and let them.

Something which was not entirely outside the realm of possibility, given the pair had not slept.

“Go on, Terry,” Osprey said, as he cut downward with his sword and turned a bobcat into two half-bobcats. “Rush on ahead. I’ll hold them off of you…”

“First of all: secret identity!!” the Shield said.

“What, afraid of the stray cat population learning your secret?” Osprey quipped, turning to face another wave of wild mountain cats. The coeurl whose tentacle Osprey cut off was circling around looking for an opening in the midst of the battle; the ex-spy had presence of mind enough to be aware of the beast’s presence even as he made mincemeat of the non-magical-mutant cats.

“Second,” the Shield continued, as he lashed out with his shield-arm and swatted a pouncing coeurl away from its attempt to take him from behind, “It wouldn’t be very heroic of me to leave my sidekick behind, now would it?”

The Shield grabbed Osprey and held him in both arms. Startled at first, Osprey quickly recovered when he realized it was Terry who’d grabbed him.

“Now is not the time for huggies,” Osprey said. Then, with realization, he exclaimed: “Wait, ‘sidekick’? Did you just offer me a job!?!”

“Just hold on,” the Shield said, as he throttled up his repulsor unit.

The gravitic blast sent the pair screaming forward, well ahead of the feline ambush. As they were in the air, Osprey happened to look down to see the lone black cat, watching them from his ledge.

“I AM THE NIGHT!!” Osprey called, as he tossed out a shuriken.

The cat turned to run, then yelped as the throwing star buried itself in his rear flank. Osprey laughed victoriously.

“I totally just darted that evil cat in the ass,” Osprey said, proud of himself.

After they landed, Terry shed his repulsor unit and examined it. It was smoldering, the seraphim casing badly warped by the full burn maneuver. He sighed, and kicked it back down the mountain behind them.

“Feels nice to get that weight off my shoulders,” he said, resting his fists on his hips as he watched it bounce down the mountain.

“That feeling will go away quickly when you look up here,” Osprey said, pointing toward the rest of the distance ahead of them.

Terry looked, but seemed unfazed. “We’ll rest a bit,” he said, “Go ahead and sleep, I’ll take watch.”

Osprey was too exhausted to ask questions. He unslung his backpack, laid it down on the ground and collapsed into it. Even filled as it was with gear and food – but, oddly, no mana potions – it felt to his weary head like a down pillow.

The Shield and Osprey were able to sleep for about two hours, each in turn, before the cats caught up with them again. A quick diversionary rockslide (thanks to gravitic beat-sticks) helped them evade the first ambush, but they were locked in running battles all the way up until about evening, when the attacks finally subsided.

It was growing dark when they came at long last to a cave opening in the mountain.

Osprey’s clothes were torn (“See this!? This is what happens when you climb Insane Death Cat Mountain without invincible plastic pants!!! You’re paying for this somehow, Terry!!”), his eyes sagging. Normally composed and calm, the model warrior, Osprey was shaking from fatigue. He had neglected the ritual cleaning of blood from his blade during the day-long battles against random large cats for no reason, and so Shiva’s Edge was now caked with dried, dark red debris and bits of furry flesh.

“Can we stop here, Terry?” Osprey pleaded. “We haven’t seen any cats for hours, thank the Gods… and in the past day or so I’ve only slept for two, three hours? Maybe?”

“We’re so close,” Terry said. “Just a little further.”

Grudgingly, Osprey moved forward, falling in line behind the Shield as he activated his nightvision. They walked several feet inside the cave, following its twists and turns, until they came to… a bolted metal security door.

The Shield examined the door for a moment, feeling it with the palms of his hands.

“Try ringing the bell,” Osprey said.

“I’ll knock,” The Shield said, with a smile, as he held up one of his gravitic batons.

With a simple tap, the door fell in with a loud crash.

“Anybody home?” Osprey called.

“Quiet!!” Terry whispered. “With our luck, there are more cats inside…”

As the pair stepped in over the collapsed door, both were suddenly blinded by bright light that poured down on top of them.

“Nope, ain’t no cats in here,” came a voice from above them. All around, there were large, dark figures. At first Terry assumed that they were robots because of their immense, girthy forms, but as he shut off his night vision and allowed his eyes to adjust to the glare, he could see that they weren’t like anything he had ever seen before. They were enormous, vaguely humanoid… they resembled something like a large cockroach, or beetle, or some other grotesque insect. Only these insects could hold very large guns, several of which were aimed at the pair of heroes presently.

“… Just us chickens,” said the voice from above again cackling madly.

The Shield covered his eyes and looked up at the source of the voice. It was a man, standing on a catwalk… a man who looked very, very familiar to Terence Shale.

“You!?” Terry cried. “What the hell are you doing here!?”

“… Me!?” the voice said, indignantly. “Who the fuck else would you expect to be hangin’ out in the Manta Cave, ya horse’s cunt!?”

::Phoenix Mountains, Tzen Region::

“Great,” Terry said, gripping his baton and deploying the Vanguard shield. “Out of the frying pan, into the fire.”

“Now c’mon, Shield,” Manta said, leering down on the pair of interlopers. “Y’ain’t stupid, kid. I know you don’t think you’n fight yer way outta this one.”

Terry was ready to spit some bravado right back into Manta’s face, when he felt Osprey’s hand on his armored shoulder.

“Oh, right,” Terry said, “I forgot, only one of us is decked out in seraphim armor…”

“Well, yes, there is that,” Osprey said. “But, Shield, have you forgotten why we’re here?”

“To fix Shiru,” Terry said.

“And look where our path has brought us,” Osprey said.

Terry glanced up at Manta. He recalled then something Ammit had said, off-handedly, easily missed, but it returned unbidden to Terry’s mind as he stood there, surrounded by mutant cockroaches and the Web’s premiere omnicidal covert operative. “Breaker and mender both,” Ammit had said.

“… You’ve got to be kidding me…” the Shield said, sighing and hanging his head.

“Why don’t you let me do the talking?” Osprey said. “I think Manta will be better disposed to dealing with me. Seeing as how, of the two of us, I’ve never killed Manta before.”

“There were mitigating circumstances there,” Terry replied, as Osprey stepped forward.

“Manta,” Osprey called up, as the cockroach-soldiers leveled their weapons in the avian Mystic’s direction.

“Os,” Manta said, inclining his head. “Don’t suppose one of you’s gonna explain to me why we’re all here, now. And why my fuckin’ door’s broke.”

“Well, I can try,” Osprey said. “But first I think you should… ah… have your friends here lower their weapons. Nobody’s here to hurt anybody, I don’t think.”

“Well 'at’s where you’re wrong, Os,” Manta said, leaning casually on the catwalk railing. “See, these guys here, they’re exactly fuckin’ here to hurt somebody. If I tell 'em to. I ain’t decided if I gotta go ahead and do that yet, though. But out of an abundance of caution, they’re good ta go the microsecond I decide ta say the word.”

“I see,” Osprey said. “So they’re, what… your bouncers?”

“Somethin’ like that,” Manta said. “Truthfully, it’s just yer dumb luck you caught us here. We were just makin’ a stop here at the Cave on our way out from Tunlan, stockin’ up and preparin’ ta ship out to the Fringe. Got us a contract to fulfill.”

“Didn’t know you were rolling with an entourage these days.”

“Well, you know. Sometimes it’s good to be the El Presidente for Life of a small independent dictatorship.”

“Hey, that’s right, you’re a head of state…” Osprey said, thinking. “Would you mind if I left you my resume –?”

“Osprey!” Terry snapped.

“Sorry, sorry,” Osprey said, laughing nervously. “Right, so, why we’re here. You see, we were in Albrook, and we had a meeting at the Judge’s Scales –”

“Hah!” Manta chortled. “Good times. Say how is ol’ gator-face, anyhow?”

“Well, just fine, I guess,” Osprey said.

“Y’know that guy can’t stand me?” Manta offered.

“Can’t imagine why…” Terry muttered.

Manta ignored him. “That weirdo Ted still workin’ for 'im?”

“Yes,” Osprey replied quickly, veering right back around to his main point: “Anyway, Ammit said we had to climb the Phoenix mountains, in search of destiny and whatnot, and we ended up in here following Ammit’s directions. So, here we are. Now, two things… first, I don’t suppose you’d be interested in helping us in our quest to repair the Shield’s shield? And second, what sort of benefits do these hired cockroach-goons of yours enjoy?”

“Repair it!?” Manta laughed. “You gotta be fuckin’ kidding me. I went to an unbelievable amount of trouble to break that fuckin’ thing in the first place.”

“The irony isn’t lost on me, really,” Terry said.

“Hey, fuck you cuntnugget,” Manta said, “I’m the one that fucking died that night. By all rights I should be havin’ my roach-boys mow you down right fucking now, 'cept I don’t want 'em wastin any of their ammo before we get to where we gotta be. That shit’s expensive, man.”

“Well, good,” Osprey said, “I’m glad we resolved the is-anybody-going-to-get-shot-to-death question. Now, about the shield…”

“I believe my answer to that question was ‘fuck you, cuntrag,’” Manta said.

“Cuntnugget,” Terry corrected. “I believe it was ‘cuntnugget,’ not ‘cuntrag.’”

“Yeah, keep talkin’, asshole,” Manta said, as he drew his pistol and levelled it at the Shield. “I’m guessin’ it’s gonna take me a hell of a lot less effort to break your replacement toys and finish what I started the last time we danced.”

“… Please?” Osprey said.

Manta chuckled, not taking his eyes off of the Shield. With his free hand, he clutched the catwalk railing and vaulted himself over, landing next to Osprey.

“Look,” Manta said, “As much as I appreciate you two comin’ over and breakin’ into my volcanic cavern hideout, I got two very compelling reasons not to help you guys. First, I’m sorta on a pretty strict timetable here. I should’ve been underway an hour ago, but I wasted three hours when I got here tryin ta figure out what the shit happened to my power generators since the last time I used this place. Second, I don’t wanna, and also, your pal the Shield’s a fuckin’ idiot douchenozzle shitstain bitch.” Manta paused, and counted on his fingers. “Three, three reasons not to help you guys. Also fuck you. Four reasons.”

“Okay, but the Shield’s… doucheness aside, surely there must be some way we can work out a compromise,” Osprey said.

Terry sighed, but decided it might be best if he said nothing.

“I don’t see how, Os,” Manta said. “You got money?”

Osprey paused. “Well. I’m actually between jobs at the moment.”

“Okay, so there goes that,” Manta said. “I gotta be honest, money was pretty much your only in with me. Without copious wads of coin ta balance everything out, I can’t see what possible interest I could have in making this ex-super bag-of-dicks super again. Shieldy and I ain’t got the best of histories together, I’ll have you know. Dunno if you heard, Os… but your boy in the seraphim suit killed me this one time. That ain’t something you get over easy-like.”

“Oh come on, you got invincible voodoo zombie powers out of that!” Terry balked. “You can’t possibly be upset over my killing you!! You made out like a bandit, you godsdamned psychopath.”

Manta opened his mouth, but then stopped. He nodded his head thoughtfully. “You know, you’re probably right. But still, man, you fucking threw me off a building and impaled me on my own knife. That’s fuckin’ weak. Bitch.”

“Now now,” Osprey said, “In fairness, you tried to kill him first.”

“That’s different,” Manta said, “Some guy gave me money. And don’t fucking take his side, Os.”

“Look,” Osprey said, “I think we can actually work something out here. If you’re both willing to be fair… Shield? Manta?”

Osprey looked at both men in turn. Manta scowled. He debated snapping out his hand and yanking off a fistful of Osprey’s head feathers.

“Now Manta, you’re the one who broke the shield, first of all,” Osprey continued. “Second of all, the Shield’s sort of responsible for you ending up with voodoo invincibility, and all of that. So, from a certain standpoint, you could say you actually owe it to the Shield to fix what’s broken. Right?”

Manta cleared his throat. “A little thin, but I’ll let it stand till I see where you’re goin with this.”

“Shield,” Osprey said, turning to face the Shield. “Surely you can see how Manta wouldn’t want to do this for you. I mean, it’s really not in his best interests. He’s probably afraid that you’d beat him up once you got all supered-out again.”

“Hey, fuck you drumstick!” Manta said, pushing Osprey from behind. Osprey stumbled forward and spun around to face the Priman. “I ain’t afraid of this tights-wearin’ bitch-ass loser!”

“I dunno, you sound awful defensive,” Terry said, smirking.

“Yeah, take off that robo-cop piece of shit and say that to my face, limpdick,” Manta said.

“Well, I really wouldn’t blame you if you were afraid of the Shield’s return,” Osprey said. “I mean, at the height of his power, the Shield was able to intercept weapons of mass destruction with his body.”

“Twice,” Terry said.

Osprey nodded. “Two times.”

“That don’t mean shit,” Manta said. “Bitch, I am a weapon of mass destruction!!”

“Look,” Terry said, “We tried, Osprey. You’re right: Manta’s just afraid of what could happen. We’ll just have to find another way.”

Manta sighed. Then, a smile. A chuckle. A hideous, psychotic, villainous guffaw that echoed through the caverns all around them. The Priman folded his arms. “Don’t get all proud of yourselves and think this reverse psychology bullshit’s workin’. Cuz it ain’t. Well, sort of. But fuck you anyway… I tell you what, bitches. I’ll do you this thing you beat down my fuckin’ door over… but on one condition, and it’s non-negotiable.”

“Okay, great!” Osprey said. “Now we’re getting somewhere. I think we’ve made some real progress here –”

Manta pushed Osprey aside, and stood face-to-face with the Shield.

“You owe me one favor,” Manta said. “Which I will name, at a time and place of my choosing, and which you must comply with. Or I get to smack you. In the dick.”

“Let’s define ‘favor,’ before I say yes,” Terry said.

“… also, why in the dick?..” Osprey asked.

“Nuh uh, bitch!” Manta said. “Yes or no, here and now, or there is NO deal.”

“Okay then,” Terry said, “As long as this ‘favor’ is nothing vulgar, humiliating, illegal or debasing –”

“Bitch, shut the fuck up!! You say ‘yes’ or you take a walk, monkeyscrotum. Now what’s it gonna be!?”

Terry sighed. “Yes?” he said.

Manta grinned. “Now say it again,” he said, “But this time… hold out the busted shield in your hands.”

Terry paused. He and Osprey exchanged glances. Shrugging, he opened up his backpack and pulled out the broken fragments of Shiru.

“… Yes?” Terry said.

“Yes what?” Manta said.

“… Yes, I’ll owe you a favor.”

As Terry spoke the words, the bits of slag glowed faintly. Osprey’s eyes widened.

Manta cracked a grin.

“Well, the good news is, it looks like this won’t be a complete waste of everybody’s time,” Manta said. “The bad news is… not that I didn’t trust ya before… but your magic shield’s gonna hold ya to our bargain.”

Terry was confused. Osprey shook his head.

“You… sorta just cast a spell,” Osprey said. “Or, I guess you and Manta did together. It’s as binding as any shady legal agreement. But, silver lining? It looks like Shiru’s still kicking in there. This could actually work.”

Manta clapped his hands and did a chicken dance. “This is why voodoo zombie powers kick the shit out of magic shield invincibility, bitch!! Boo-ya!!”

“There’s one more thing, Manta,” Osprey said. He looked at Terry.

“Right,” Terry said, setting the broken shield down on the ground. “Well, Ammit said you’d have to… add a little bit to the shield. Aside from the broken pieces.”

“Oh yeah?” Manta said. “So this’s also an upgrade, is it? Fine, fine. So what is it then?”

Terry reached up and took off his helmet. He tossed it down next to the shield.

“The armor,” he said, as he began taking off the rest.

Manta blinked. “That’s what you look like under that shit?” he quipped. “Here I was thinkin’ you wore masks to protect your loved ones, but you just hidin’ ugly under there, ain’t ya ass-face?”

It didn’t seem like it would work.

It was the sort of thing that was, on the face of it, far too simple a means to reach a larger-than-life end.

Piece by piece, Manta heated and melted down first the slagged Dreamstone pieces of the shield, then poured in the melted Seraphim plastic from Terry’s armor – with the exception of the left gauntlet, with Vanguard module attached, which Terry kept aside (and planned to give to Violante as a souvenir).

Manta delighted in doing it, if only because he knew that it was a stupid thing to ask him to do. Smelt plastic??

Manta’s secret hideout was uniquely suited to this work. He had built an entire section of cavern into a complex industrial forge – and his huge mutant-cockroach enforcers were well-trained in operating the machinery that made the whole thing work – in spite of the power fluctuations that appeared to still be plaguing the volcano hideout.

A shimmering ghost – dressed like a butler – was also present and doing his part to help out. He seemed to be supervising the process, watching as the roach-men worked the machines at each stage. He floated over back to Manta’s side, and whispered something in his ear.

“Well I’ll be fucked by a giant ridged dildo,” the Priman exclaimed.

It seemed to be working. The Seraphim and the Dreamstone, after being melted down, melded together quite harmoniously into the shield-shaped mold. In fairness, looked very much like it had been destroyed and then repaired on the quick in a secret mountain hideout with a malfunctioning power supply.

The funny thing was, Terry didn’t remember picking up the finished product. Nor did he remember remarking about how quickly it had cooled, or how light it felt in his hands. He didn’t remember how much time the process had taken, or anything after Manta’s invocation of a “giant ridged dildo” – and he definitely didn’t remember passing out. He was just sort of aware of the fact that he was standing in pure white, holding his memory of his old shield, and wearing his old white super-heroing costume.

He was aware of two presences in front of him – though they weren’t Osprey and Manta. One he recognized as Shiru, the spirit that was housed within his shield, and the source of his elemental-based powers. He was a squat, hairless, brown-skinned humanoid in flowing white robes with wedge-shaped ears, large solid-black eyes and a short, anteater-like snout. It had been so long since Terry had seen Shiru, the sight of him sent ripples of comfort through him. He couldn’t help but smile and sigh, relieved.

The other, Terry was not familiar with. He was taller, more human-like, with great downy wings sprouting off his back… a Krydion? No. Something else; different. Not mortal.

Terry heard no words, but when his eyes fell on the winged man, he began to know things. He knew that the man called himself a “seraphim,” and that his name was Kabshiel, and that he had been dead for a long, long time. Dead? Physically, but not fully. Sleeping? The actual word Kabshiel used slid over and around Terry’s understanding, elusive, and yet he seemed to know the meaning despite. The seraphim’s spirit had been dormant until he met Terry, but he was still not fully awake, and had been confused. Somehow, Terry knew that Shiru had helped Kabshiel regain himself. Part of himself.

All the information, coming into his mind so fast… Terry was confused. Kabshiel regarded him sympathetically.

Terry began to know more, slowly this time; he was involved in a conversation without words, an exchange of pure thoughts – and yet the seraphim did appear to be making actual sound, resonant tones of music like the plucking of harp strings that filled the ambience of their surroundings. He saw a great host of gold-armored warriors, with the white wings of swans, shields and armor of light, and swords of blazing fire. They coursed down from the clouds like a mighty river flowing down a mountain’s face, moving with the instinctive synchronization of a flock of birds.

Looking below them, Terry saw a great yawning maw opened in the earth below. The maw belched out gouts of flame and lava, and with them droves of hideous monsters, too varied in their grotesque features to group together with a single, horrible name. They took to the air clumsily, with a hodge podge of wings as those of bats and various insects. In frenzied, chaotic clouds of shadow and fire and smoke and evil, the monsters surged upward to meet the heavenly host, with claws and teeth and (in some cases) crude weaponry.

As the two forces met, thousands were struck down. Both winged warriors from above and disgusting monsters from below tumbled down toward the earth as they were struck down by their foes. Yet for all the countless dead that rained down from the aerial battle, the numbers of both sides seemed endless. Neither force cared much for the fate of those lost in the conflict.

And that was when Terry saw Kabshiel – knowing, somehow, that it was Kabshiel – falling from the battle. His wings were on fire, and his otherwise statuesque torso had been rent open by a large, jagged sword that was still stuck in his form. Kabshiel writhed, teetering on the edge of consciousness, as the world sped up to meet him. The closer he came to the ground below, the farther away the great conflict that had claimed his life seemed to be; eventually the images of heaven and hell at war faded completely, obscured by layers of clouds. The forces of friction began to act on him, as his golden hair began to singe, and his skin blackened.

He impacted the earth like a meteor, heralded by a small explosion and a shower of rocks and dirt. When the smoke cleared, there Kabshiel lay, alone in a crater, his charred body little less than a shadow of his former majesty.

Terry watched the aeons pass. Layers of soil piled atop Kabshiel’s remains, and Kabshiel himself sank into lower and lower stratas. Kingdoms rose and fell, the Dimensions touched each other, wars were fought, mortals lived, loved and died by the millions. And then, Kabshiel was unearthed.

Terry’s vision shifted now, and he saw crews of workers wearing Diamond company uniforms. Kabshiel, and others like him, were extricated from the earth. Their bodies had been reduced to minerals by the passage of time, and Diamond harvested these minerals. Some had liquefied, they had been dead and deep so long, and were mostly indistinguishable from common petroleum.

Mostly, that is. Terry knew that, somehow, the men from Diamond knew exactly what they were looking for when they found Kabshiel’s remains. As they had done with countless other remains like it over the years, they extracted it, graded it and sent it away by truck to a refinery.

Terry saw Kabshiel in a laboratory. His body had only partially liquefied; the process was completed by the lab coat-sporting chemists that worked busily at the laboratory’s various machines. Kabshiel’s remains were “fresher” than most that Diamond worked with; they were graded very high owing to their potency, and so were kept separate from the general reserve of Seraphim stock.

Diamond would reserve them for a special project. The cockpit reinforcement of the executives’ Seraphim machines, perhaps. Or the casing for a new prototype’s artificial processing centers.

That was when Terry saw an image of Norstein Bekkler shaking hands (err, glove) with Abe Zion.

The next image came on abruptly, direct from Terry’s memory. It was Egmont, and again there were monsters and demons everywhere. Only this time, Terry saw himself, and Fara and scores of other heroes doing the fighting.

Terry watched himself, clad in his Seraphim body armor. As he did, he saw the image of Kabshiel moving with him, as though the two were one, his glorious ghostly wings fanned out dramatically from Terry’s armored back.

Terry understood now why Ammit had told him he’d have to use his Seraphim armor to repair the broken shield: Kabshiel had become a part of him, just as Shiru had; the process that bound Terry’s soul with Shiru’s had left him feeling empty after the breaking of his shield. Without realizing it, Terry had resolved this by bonding with the spirit of the long-dead Kabshiel, housed within the armor.

When he awoke again, Manta and Osprey were standing over him. A loogie dangled from Manta’s fishy lower lip – he quickly retracted it when he saw Terry’s eyes flicker open.

“Welcome back to the world, bitch,” Manta said, his smile leering and victorious.

Terry hadn’t said a word to either Manta or Osprey after he’d awakened. Nor had he conceded to finally making camp and letting Osprey have some rest. Instead the pair set out again, back down the mountain toward where they’d left the car.

This had naturally left Osprey in somewhat of a disgruntled state. But he said nothing, despite how dirty and exhausted he was from trekking pretty much non-stop since the pair had left Albrook. He recognized the fulfillment of one of Bekkler’s grand designs when he saw it, and was loath to be very vocal in protest of it. Even though another one of Bekkler’s grand designs had kept him pitifully unemployed and crashing on a Valkyrie’s couch far away from the Gate Dimension.

Osprey was ripped from these thoughts when the pair of heroes came across a small tree that had been knocked over by one of the rockslides they had instigated in their flight from the evil cats that were chasing them earlier. Nine of said cats – each one looking to have been roughed-up or otherwise injured by the previous night’s running battles – had surrounded a wounded blackbird that was pinned under one of the tree’s branches.

Reflexively, both men armed themselves: Osprey drew his sword, and Terry manifested his newly reforged shield on his left arm.

The nine cats looked at each other, and looked up at the pair of heroes nervously.

Oh no, it’s them! one of them said.

Err, another said, I mean, meow, we’re different cats from before… honest. Meow?

The blackbird sighed. “… almost embarrassing that these maroons’ve finally caught me.”

Silence! came a voice from the cats. This contest is finally over, and you are the loser, Raven!

“You all die if you lay one paw on that bird,” Terry said, levelling his shield.

The cats looked up at Terry, and one of them broke out laughing. The other cats melted away into vapors, while the laughing cat – a black cat with white socks, muzzle and tail-tip – stood straight up on its hind legs. From somewhere on his person, the cat produced a yellow paper crown and placed it atop his head. From nowhere, a short red cape unfurled down the cat’s back. Standing with arms akimbo, the cat stepped forward and stomped on the bird’s head – with feet that were suddenly clad in a pair of bright-red sneakers.

“I win,” the cat said.

Before either Terry or Osprey could respond, a muffled voice rose up from the dead bird: “Mfff, mffwoo mffffnnnh.”

The cat lifted its foot, and the bird flapped its wings and flew up to light upon one of the branches of the overturned tree. It sighed.

“… Best four out of five?” the bird asked.

“What the hell is going on here!?” Osprey asked – at this point wondering if hallucinations were supposed to come on so quickly in cases of sleep deprivation.

“Ah good,” the cat said, “I was waiting for a set-up to give some exposition! Allow me to introduce myself. I am Cait Sith, trickster supreme.”

“And I am Raven,” the bird said, “The most masterful trickster in all known worlds.”

“Ah, ahem?” Cait Sith said. “Remember the part where I just won?”

“This habit of you winning is a very recent innovation,” Raven said. “From like just five seconds ago, after countless lifetimes of being a dumb loser.”

“Anyway,” Cait Sith said, “Seems I mistook you,” the cat pointed at Osprey, “For Raven in disguise. Figured Raven was making a go for the goal, so that’s why I tried to kill you.”

“And, incidentally,” Raven broke in, “I was going for the goal. Which was, by the way, a nest way up on the summit of this mountain, near the caldera of the extinct volcano. That’s where the Phoenix esper used to make her roost, you know. The game is: if I can get up there and snag some of the charred remains of one of Phoenix’s nest, without getting killed by Cait Sith or his cats, then I win.”

“And if I kill Raven, and stop her from getting the bit of charred Phoenix-nest, then I win.” Cait Sith beamed and clapped his hands.

“WAIT JUST A DAMN MINUTE,” Osprey said, nearly screaming. “You mean this whole thing… chasing us up the mountain… attacking us at the campgrounds… the hours spent in running battles with wildcats, deprived of sleep, tired and aching and sore… GETTING ATTACKED BY A CRAZY LADY WITH A SHOTGUN… ALL OF IT WAS PART OF SOME DUMB GAME!?”

Raven cocked her head and looked at Osprey. “Dumb!?” she said, incredulously. “I’ll have you know we’ve been at this game for centuries. That woman was part of a cat-worshipping cult that Cait Sith started a couple decades back solely for the purpose of having them goal-tend the objective.”

Cait Sith removed one of his cartoonish white gloves, and it levitated behind him to literally pat himself on the back. “I thought that was actually kind of clever.”

“It was borderline cheating,” Raven said.

Cait Sith shrugged. “This is why you haven’t been winning our games. You lack vision in your old age, birdy.” The cat regarded the two heroes and stroked his whiskers. “Now these two… they might make for some decent sport. Don’t you think?”

Raven rolled her eyes. “Body count’s pretty high this round, what with all those murdered wildcats… I think maybe we should take a break from the game for a while. You need to remember where the boundaries are.”

Cait Sith frowned. “You’re no fun,” he said. Then he looked back at the Shield, and he winked. “But you? Oh, yes, you. I think I’ll be seeing you again real soon, hero.”

With that, Cait Sith reached out and flung open a door that hadn’t been there before. He stepped through and slammed it behind him; as soon as it was closed, the door itself disappeared into nothingness.

Raven turned and looked at the two heroes. She chuckled hesitantly. “Cait Sith, ladies and gentlemen,” she said. “Really, he’s an acquired taste, I know. But once you get to know him he’s kinda swell.”

Osprey sheathed his sword. “Hey, uh… The Shield,” Osprey said. “How about you fly us back to the car so we can get out of here a hell of a lot faster?”

“Hey!” Raven said, as she flapped her wings and came closer to Osprey. “Look, I know we got off on the wrong foot. And possibly it’s even my fault, a little, that you got mistaken for me and had all this happen to you… But let me make it up to you!”

Osprey balled his fists and locked eyes with Raven. “How,” he said, coldly, “Could you possibly ever make any of THIS up to me??”

“I can grant you three wishes,” Raven said.

Osprey blinked. “Oh. Wait, really, that’s a thing?”

Raven laughed, and her wings missed a beat and she collapsed to the ground. She rolled along on the mountain path, laughing uncontrollably, tiny tears springing from her eyes. When she was able to regain her breath, she stood up on her feet, shook out her wings, and looked up at Osprey.

“No,” Raven said, “No that’s not a thing at all. Boy, you should’ve seen the look on your face just then!.. Three wishes!! Haha!!”

Osprey, fuming, had turned on his heel and started to walk down the mountain. The Shield hurriedly jogged after him.

“You okay?” the Shield asked.

Osprey grumbled. “I am not,” he said. “I just want to go home and sleep. On Roxanne’s luxurious couch. For the rest of the year.”

Coming up from behind the pair was a third figure. She was upon them before either had detected her presence; she stretched out her arms, wrapped one around each of the heroes’ shoulders, and drew them closer together so they were all three walking in tandem.

Osprey and the Shield turned their heads and between them was a woman, dressed all in black, with long unruly tresses of black hair and sharp, sparkling black eyes. Her smile was beaming.

“But seriously,” Raven said. “I feel like I owe you one. The distraction you provided in your climb made it so I almost won the game. Didn’t quite get me all the way there, but I appreciate it nonetheless. And, trickster though I may be… let it never be said that Raven doesn’t square all her accounts.”

Raven reached out a finger and booped the tip of Osprey’s beak. “So,” she continued, “Not quite ‘three wishes,’ but… I do owe you one for being such a model decoy, feathers.”

The Shield chuckled. “His name is Osprey,” the Shield said.

“Oh!” Raven’s eyes widened as she turned back to Osprey. “Hey! Osprey!! We’re both named after kinds of birds! How cool is that, huh? Now it’s like fate. We’re destined to be the very best of friends. Right?”

“… No kill rule?” Osprey asked, looking past Raven and right at the Shield, his hand sliding its way toward the hilt of Shiva’s Edge.

The Shield shook his head. “Come on, Os. Let her make it up to you. Who knows? She could prove as useful as Bim someday.”

“Oh,” Raven said, her smile still beaming – but now tinged with an edge of wickedness. “I’m sorry. Did I give either of you the impression that there was a choice involved here?..” She giggled, and then, with a popping sound and a puff of black feathers, the woman reverted into the form of a small blackbird and flapped away, her laughter carrying in the air and echoing across the mountain. “Be seeing you real soon, Osprey,” the wind seemed to say.

The two stood there for a long time, just staring off in the direction that Raven had flown off in.

“You wanna talk about it, buddy?” Terry asked.

Osprey sighed. “I just want to sleep.”

With a flash of light, Terry suited up, manifesting both his shield and his old white super-heroing costume. “Make it up to you by flying you the rest of the way down? You can sleep in the Packer on the drive home?”

Osprey reached down into his pocket and pulled out the OmniMate 600. In the midst of everything, the phone had come through with barely a scratch.

But it still had no signal.

“… wireless revolution my ass,” Osprey said, pitching the phone out over the mountain ledge and watching it sail down onto the rocks far below. “Yeah,” Osprey said, with a relieved sigh. “It’d be great if you’d do that, Terry. It’s a long drive back, after all.”

Terry reached down and hefted Osprey up in his arms. He blinked and stared into Terry’s face.

“What?” Terry said.

“You know,” Osprey said, “You shouldn’t take what Manta said personally. I don’t think you’re ugly. You’re actually quite attractive for a human.”

“… Don’t make this weird,” Terry said, as his feet left the ground and he took to the air – flying by dint of his superpowers for the first time in years.

“Oh, THIS is weird!?” Osprey stammered. “THIS, after the day and night we just experienced, me displaying immense lack of insecurity by telling you you’re a good looking man is somehow the WEIRD part!?”

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