It is possible to believe
that all the past is but the
beginning of a beginning,
and that all that is and has
been is but the twilight of
the dawn. It is possible to
believe that all the human
mind has ever
accomplished is but the
dream before the
awakening.

-H.G. Wells

Prologue

The Rock of Braal - Kule Homeworld - Kule Space


~~*~~

The stillness was broken by his footfalls. Treading through the silent halls of the forbidding palace of death, he felt the sadness of the ancient stones. He felt the cries of the bitter scientists and vengeance filled warmasters that had discovered their error. Bitter in the knowledge that they had sentenced their entire race to death, executing them in a manner that delighted their enemies by freeing known space from the tyranny of the Kule once and for all.

He descended the stairs, walking down towards the great golden door that stood open for him. The last of the Kule, mightiest of the warmasters, awaited him in upon the throne of tears. A magnificent being, bred for a war that now would never come, sitting in silent repose, doomed for an eternity of undying life, to stand vigil over the repository of ages. That last library of the Peligians, the eternal monument to the arrogance of science.

The Kule didn't stir from where his gauntleted hand rested against a tired brow, instead his eyes rotated in their sockets to stare at the stranger that had broken his reverie. Shrouded in coarse blue robes, his eyes were hidden by the broad, reed hat, beads decorating the neck line, clicking with each step as he limped his way down the central aisle between the two clear blue pools of water. All that remained of the holy lake of Uan, which were said to be the tears of the goddess-creator herself when she had wept at the sight of the first Kule born from the fires of hell and thrust upon her pure world.

A living god standing at the end of time before the throne.

"You have come far," Titan, for he had no other name, breathed, his voice weary of all the suffering.

"A journey of the mind, spirit and body, sirrah," the old man replied. "It seems old warriors are destined to become thinkers, wandering forever lost in memories of that we have done."

"You walk with the light of the Peligians," Titan said at length. "You are not from this time, you exist beyond it. What is your name God of Man?"

"Names, sirrah, are worthless," the old man replied. "You know that as well as I. I am here to see how it all began with my own eyes."

"It began with death, and it shall end with death," Titan said wearily finally lowering his hand. "I know you, or I will come to know you again. You are he that was forgotten, you that hides in the shadow of the Wyrm, you that watches time eternal without the capacity to change it…"

"I changed time, once," the old man said softly, a moment of regret in his tone.

"You mean you will change time," Titan said softly. "Your past is my future, and since this is my time frame. My future is the future of all."

"Semantics," the old man returned. "Tell me about the bloodroot crystal."

"I am not a library unto which you can draw upon a fount of knowledge," Titan shifted. "The accursed Peligians and their damnable secrets should die. If you are here, then you know why that should be."

The old man tilted his head so that the broad woven reed hat shielded his eyes again, "I am a product of an ancient folly. The same folly that destroyed all that you know. But without an understanding of the Bloodroot, I cannot bring it all to an end."

"There is no end to time," Titan said evenly.

"There is an end to all things," the old man replied with a gesture. "To even your pain and suffering there will come an end."

"And what of your own suffering?" Titan inquired. "The emptiness in your soul reverberates. The ghosts in your eyes show me all that has been taken from you. If you are here, it means that you can retake that which you have lost. Why have you not done so?"

"Because I must surrender my soul to do it," the old man said his voice rumbling. "I would no longer be the man that I was. And I would have changed time for nothing. And so we come around again, tell me of the bloodroot."

"It was a curse," Titan said, producing the black crystal from beneath the folds of his cloak, holding out his hand as the crystal floated, suspended on its point in the middle of his hand. Runes danced across its surfaces. "A poison that eats away at the soul, setting it afire with crazed dreams and madness. My people unearthed it after a disaster in the Gorean territories burned one of their worlds. That disaster should have been our warning, but in our arrogance we presumed the Gorean had made mistakes. And so the secret of Peligia came to us, with this gift of their blood." Titan shifted on his throne, the plates of his armour sliding as he coiled to the other side. "The essence that made them the holy watchers… Angels that spawned across the stars … those that bred only monsters. I wonder if the Ophanim felt as I do now? If their soldiers, the damnable Polians that were sent to hunt down these half-breeds, knew that the secret lay in the true Peligian Heresy? That it was love that cursed them to their demise and not their science?"

Titan stared at the human, "our scientists promised us the next evolutionary leap, to duplicate their mistakes. And I wondered at the time if the Polians would sweep down upon us as they had their fornicating masters. But I know now that they didn't have to. They only had to sit back and watch as the Pax destroyed my race."

"What is bloodroot?" The Kule asked looking at the crystal in his hand. "It is the remnant of their love. And you, of all beings, now understand all too well the price of love, don't you? It threatens your very soul… and…"

The old man held up a hand, the bloodroot crystal sweeping down the chamber to hover before his outstretched hand. "All of this suffering spanning from a single drop of blood."

"A drop of the divine," Titan stated.

"The seed of anguish," the old man answered watching the crystal rotate slowly before him. "Tell me what occurs next."

"You are the force at the centre of the universe, everything spins around you. You manipulate it, strumming it like a harp of your whim. The discordant notes heralding an age of chaos." Titan settled back into his throne. "That is not what you wanted to hear, is it?"

"I cannot believe that," the old man replied. His eyes flashing from beneath the brim of his hat still locked on the crystal in his hands.

"Then you know that to begin this dance you must deliver Rikard the crystal shard." Titan folded his arms. "It is funny, when I see the next one of your kind, he will be the supplicant, asking for the repository of knowledge the Polians and the Peligians left behind. The key to the destruction of my people, in the war of attrition brought about by a single man bred of the fires of war..."

"There will be others that will come after that," the old man said quietly as he closed his hand around the crystal.

"Stormbreaker and the pestilence," Titan flexed his gauntlet. "As prophesized by our most ancient of seers…"

"I was that seer," the old man said lightly. "And I will deliver that prophecy to your ancient ones after I give this crystal to an Orion trader. It will say how you will meet your death."

"I am to die by the hand of the plague so that the Stormbreaker can collect the key. I know my part in your little play…" Titan smiled. " God-Emperor of Man."

"Alas, sirrah," the old man's eyes glittered. "I have an Orion trader waiting… the poor man will put this crystal on a dusty shelf where it will remain until it is stumbled upon by a geneticist with a penchant for ancient galactic history. To think, the device that will shape history on a galactic scale will be a book-end…"

"You seem surprised?" Titan inquired.

"Not at all," the old man slipped the crystal into the folds of his robes. "The entire planet of Quelnowa was destroyed by a micro-singularity some girl was wearing set into an engagement ring. Some times it is the most innocuous of things that prove the most deadly."

"Like you, young Princling?" Titan suggested.

"Both of us, yes." Edward's face drew troubled as he turned away, marching back towards the doors in silence.

Imperial Fortress - Earth - Imperial Territory


~~*~~

She ran.

The halls of the crystalline palace were ominously alien, foreboding and forbidding to the Archduchess who had become lost in them. Lost in her heart, in her mind, and now lost in the maze of his will.

She paused in her running, panting as she swallowed despite her fear. Knowing that the white ghost was there, stalking her with a pattern of vengeance. Out to claim her as it had her son. Her beloved Jason… screaming just moments after Edward had been born. It had cut him down before his time.

"I know you're there!" she screamed out, balling her hands into the folds of her gown, screaming back down the hall, "I know you are there!"

Praetorian guards that flanked the hall barely registered her screams. They were silent sentinels that were not there to impede a member of the Imperial High House, especially not the sister of their Immortal Emperor. They stood impassively watching her descent into madness, powerless to protect her from it and unwilling to be drawn into it.

She breathed heavily, staring about her with wild eyes, tears streaking her make up, the fine lines on her face creased with pain and fear. Her hair as frenzied as her heart, as she tried her best to regain some of her modelled composure.

She ran again, down the magnificent central stairwell of the Imperial residence, looking up at the crystal dome high above her, where the stars shone. Glitter and glory, and somewhere out there, the one man who could save her, her Dark Knight, was fighting a lost cause.

"I am not insane," she said firmly, raising her hand and allowing it to fall. "I am not crazed and you will not make them think it."

Taking a firm step back the way she had come she stared balefully into the darkness of the great forest of pillars that supported the dome, "do you hear me? I will not be driven mad by you!"

"Milady," Rikard rounded the corner behind her, a Page tugging him by the sleeves of his robe, the Polian staff he carried clacking on the crystal floor as he walked. A worried look on his face, "Lady Katherine!" his voice snapped.

She stopped, turning to look at him wildly, "what do you want Uncle?" She demanded.

"To help you, your highness," Rikard said, the worry on his face appeared genuine, though she could sense the venom in his mind, the manipulations that lay within his soul.

"You seek nothing of the kind, Chancellor," she spat, "only to martyr my brother and…"

Rikard looked about him at the gathered servants and guards, waving his hand, "leave us!"

The page hesitated as around him the praetorian obeyed their master, their powered armoured shells clanking as the piston-legs carried them discretely away from the conversation.

"Go," Rikard commanded of the page, his voice reverberating off of the stones about him, filled with malice.

The page scurried away; leaving the first and second generation GNs to face one another.

Rikard's hand's curled around the Polian staff, "why are you running through the halls Katherine? The servants are worried that you have lost your mind…" He couldn't seem to help the mocking smile that twisted the corner of his mouth.

"Of course," she glared, "it wouldn't do to have the sister of his Imperial Highness screaming in the halls of the palace, now would it?" She turned her head away from him her eyes stinging from the tears, "even if you are the one who's intent on driving me madness."

"You always were perceptive," Rikard said softly, the cat-like smile playing across his features openly now they were alone, "but then I designed you that way. So necessary at the time, but now that you have served your purpose, obsolete."

She rounded on him angrily, pushing her red hair back from her face, "you won't have him Rikard, not for your twisted machinations, I won't allow it."

"You cannot hide him forever," Rikard said, keeping his tone even. "Prince Edward isn't yours to keep. Your son tried to keep him from me but Edward must fulfil his purpose in the grand scheme of things."

"Your scheme…" Katherine coiled her hands into fists, her eyes wild.

"Mine, Markus's… they're one in the same really," Rikard said, raising his finger to the ceiling, "the Immortal Emperor is after all aware of everything around him. And we are all simply fulfilling a grand plan."

"A grand plan you twisted to suit your own mad dreams," Katherine took hold of Rikard's tunic and pushed him backwards against the pillar with surprising strength for an old woman, "you took my brother, you took my son… and now you want to take my grandson as well, Alex will stop you…"

"The beloved dolt of a husband of yours knows nothing," Rikard grinned as he allowed her to drive him back against the stonework. "He is cut off, stranded in the Apilon Rift with General Chow, and I hear the war is going very badly. And now the Immortal Emperor clings to the last vestiges of his flesh, unable to intervene… And Kardiac is, as we speak, obliterating opposition to the Bishops council, paving the way for a true Theocracy to take control of the Empire. So no, there is no one around that can stop me. You are cut off from your ever-loving husband, and quite alone here."

"You underestimate my husband," Katherine breathed angrily as she released the chancellor. "He knows more about your plan than you realize, and cut off as he is… he has Edward with him."

Delight filled her eyes as Rikard's face fell, a look of worry filtering across his normally placid features. He worked his mouth, trying to say something witty and brilliant. Instead he merely gaped at her.

She had out manoeuvred him.

"Yes," Katherine folded her arms. "He knew all about the trap you set for him, he's far too brilliant for you to predict."

Rikard seethed, "you sent Edward… with him?" Disbelief filled him, as rage began to make him shake. "He's a six-year-old boy, and you sent him with a into a warzone, with a homicidal maniac like VonGrippen?"

"What's the matter Rikard?" Katherine asked with a smile. "I think you underestimated the lengths I would take to protect my grandson. You took Jason from me, and I told you, I won't let you take Edward."

"VonGrippen disobeyed the Imperial Senate, the High Council and the Bishops when he went to the Apilon Rift." Rikard began to pace, his mind reeling at what she had done, quivering in fury. "What were you thinking? That he was actually going to come back? He has five ships, five. Chow's forces were decimated by the Gorean, broken and beaten…"

"Task Force Bulldog was betrayed," Katherine nodded, "now at least I know who betrayed them."

Rikard looked up, shaking his head, "your husband will be dead soon…"

The way he said the words, it was shock… she'd succeeded where so many had failed. She had rattled him.

"…as will Edward," Katherine nodded firmly, knowing that it was the only gambit they had, the only card left. "Unless you find a way to help him."

"The High Council ordered the Jump Nexus mined to seal off the Apilon Rift," Rikard protested waving a hand. "He cut himself off from any possibility of reinforcement. I can't help him."

"Then your grand plan for the GN-3 ends with his death," Katherine nodded, reading the flicker of surprise on Rikard's face. "What, you didn't expect me to know about it? I knew the moment Jason's wife became pregnant. I sensed your hand in it, and my brother never could hide things from me. You killed my son expecting me to raise the boy, putting him within your reach. You created me, Rikard; you should know I'm not that stupid."

Rikard slapped the staff weapon down into his hand, raising it as he trained it upon her, "so much like Benjamin, meddlesome and aggravating. But soon the last of the GN-2's will be destroyed…" His eyes firmed in resolve. "And with them dies a failed legacy. Edward is the future, and I won't allow even you to stop his fate."

Katherine laughed at the weapon trained upon her. "You're going to kill me now? You're far too deliberate to give in to a crime of passion. How does it feel? The animal instinct to kill me simply because I made you angry. You're perhaps, not as evolved as you thought you were."

Rikard smiled then, a cold and malicious grin that caused him to lift the weapon as he stared at her, "you have so much figured out, don't you? I mean you know about the GN-3, you know about Markus and how I have manipulated him. You know that I have sent VonGrippen and Chow out to die in the far reaches at the hands of the Gorean. But you don't as yet, know why."

Katherine's smug look faded a little as she stared at him warily, "you're going to tell me why?"

"Well that would be easy now, wouldn't it?" Rikard bounced his eyebrows as his smile deepened, "we can have a little tea, I could spell out my plan in intricate and boring detail to you, so that by some fluke of luck, or twist of fate you can turn it back upon me?" He rolled his eyes. "Please, I made you more intelligent than that. Marriage to that imbecile VonGrippen has dulled your mind."

"I spent years in the Imperial museums," Katherine said. "I have degrees in archaeology; you think I have been completely idle with my time? What is your interest in Peligia?" She stopped, her eyes widening as ;a memory tugged at her, something she'd long thought forgotten. "The bloodroot crystal," Katherine stated, remembering her time in the Phobos labs, Rikard's experiments on her and her siblings.

Again the surprise appeared in Rikard's eyes, and an appreciation for her intellect. "Good to see you're beginning to awake from the doldrums of married life. You were always so addled by your emotions. Hampered by them. At one point I had thought you would have made a good Empress, but you possessed too much… heart. Markus was always concerned with the material; power and idea were the currency that gave him a desirable edge over you."

"The weapons you used against him," Katherine looked at him thoughtfully as she moved back into the hall, her hands balling at her sides. "The Peligians knew and understood the dangers of Temporal Power. The Polians suffered greatly at the hands of the Peligians. Rising up against their masters they destroyed their own gods, their creators, and tried their best to bury those secrets under sand, dust, and ash. Knowledge is power, and knowing the future is the only way to fulfil the Peligian legacy."

Rikard shrugged playing nonchalant even though his emotions spiked towards deadly fury, "go on, you seem to be enjoying this little fantasy of yours."

"Benjamin can see the future," Katherine said at length. "You already succeeded…"

Rikard sneered, "Benjamin was a fluke, a failed experiment with a side effect I couldn't even begin to understand." He turned, sadness in his eyes, "when he was conceived I infused him with bloodroot to see if the effects that we predicted would indeed resurrect a long dead species…" Rikard's smile flashed back across his face as he looked back at her, "in my quest to create the perfect specimens of humanity, it was an Orion trader that showed me that it had already been done… But, alas, the result of that experiment was GN-2-15… your little brother Ben."

"And the rest of us?" Katherine pressed. "We were just a stepping stone? There is the interesting thing; the key to the whole puzzle is blood… not yours, not mine, but the Peligians'. " She shook her head, "but why? What failed with us that forced you to begin this… radical insanity?"

Rikard shook his head, again beaming at her as he adjusted the tunic and shifted the Polian staff to his other hand. "I wouldn't classify it as insanity. No, my thoughts are seeped in clarity. It was Ben birth that actually told me what was to come."

"A pre-sentient," Katherine looked thoughtful as she tried to reason out the methods to Rikard's madness. Unaware of the danger she was in.

"Go on, put the pieces together," Rikard taunted her. "Oh I had hoped that one of you, my children, would demonstrate the beautiful wonder of my greatest work. Your minds were supposedly a quantum advancement over my own. I have been, regrettably, repeatedly disappointed by your failures."

"You were the one who failed," Katherine stepped forward, her eye brows deepening into a frown. "You wanted more than us, something more than human and you failed."

"No I didn't," Rikard smirked as he leaned in towards her. "I succeeded."

"Why?" Katherine frowned. "The third generation… you wanted something so far beyond humanity… for what purpose? Why would you need a god?"

"You are asking all the wrong questions," Rikard sighed as he shook his head. "Markus was the same, consumed with asking all the wrong questions he was too busy dreaming of his own divinity. Of course he will never achieve it. He will be dead long before any of this comes to fruition."

"The Peligians were gods." Katherine half closed her eyes trying to remember the legends and lore she had studied on the ancient civilization long since brought to dust.

"Oh… so it is beginning to stir in there," Rikard grinned a little gleefully. "Come on…" his voice deepened, "come on!"

"You tried to steal my son's child…" Katherine took a step away from the monster.

Rikard looked up at her, "no, no, I gave him the child. I stole your son's life, though. He was in the way."

Katherine hugged her hands closer about her as she shook her head, "he was planning a life for himself."

"Yes, one away from the Imperial Court. He wasn't as easily manipulated as I had thought, and he learned, as you have now, that he was just a pawn in a much larger game." Rikard leaned back against the walls, twirling the staff weapon between his thumb and forefinger. "He was actually surprisingly intelligent. You and Alexander created a truly miraculous child there; he would have made a fantastic leader for the Empire. But there is a danger, you see, with being too intelligent. It interferes with my plans. And naturally I had him disposed of."

Katherine felt a chill, taking another, shuddering step backwards, "and the fact that you are telling me this?"

"Because you are too intelligent Katherine, and you have interfered in my plans. Which naturally means you, too, must be disposed of as well. After all, there needs to be a clear line of ascension to the Imperial throne. Markus Aquinas, before his transcendence, willed that Prince Edward be his successor. His own son, Prince Marius is… undesirable and I am sure you can see why now… So your death will serve a purpose. If you believe that your husband can survive the Gorean, then perhaps I should place my faith in him as well. Because, after all, this is all about the future, and you, my dear, lie in the past."

Katherine looked about her at the empty hall, "you can't kill me, too many people know you're with me, here."

Rikard smiled at her, "you know that there is a psychopath on the loose, an old friend of yours. Sephradon."

Katherine started, "the ghost…"

"You are the catalyst. Your death will ensure that a path to Peligia is opened. And I will ensure that your addled, grief stricken husband will move the stars in the heavens to save you." Rikard turned his head towards the white clad woman waiting in the shadows. "And I will have my key."

"Why?" Katherine demanded.

"Why?" Rikard chuckled. "It should be obvious. There is only one true god." He gestured to the woman in white. "Sephradon… kill the Duchess."

AM-Δ07 - Eqyr-Ouso - Apilon Rift Territory


~~*~~

Alexander VonGrippen, renegade Warlord of the Imperial Regimental Guard, and leader of the Gorean Combat Team pursed his lips as he watched the remote sensor feed on one of his secondary displays. Strapped in his 75 ton Assault Mech nicknamed Δ07, which itself was submerged in a deep lake high on an alpine slope, VonGrippen waited as the red contact blips, signifying the Gorean had arrived with his escort cluster. On the screen, there was a dark blue field, signifying a "free fire zone" for the Excalibur's heavy rail cannons sitting hidden just beyond the azimuth of the planet's horizon. There were four immense Orion rail cannons each armed with heavy calibre artillery slugs which had pre plotted a set of coordinates for those shells to land upon. Cautiously the FFZs were plotted directly into the path of the Gorean, and in just a few moments the Gorean's trepidous invasion of Eqyr-Ouso would become a nightmare.

The Excalibur had originally been a part of Task Force Bulldog, a multi-house operation lead by both VonGrippen himself and General Chow, charged with ending the Gorean invasion of the Apilon Rift in blatant defiance of the Emperor's will. It had been an unmitigated disaster, outnumbered and overwhelmed the relief forces sent from the Empire had been cut to ribbons in a clever tactical assault led by the enigmatic Gorean leader, Xier. The original task force had been whittled away to only a few operational ships, Chows forces destroyed and the old general himself was dead. But VonGrippen was close now close to finishing the job. It was time for the falcon to finish what gallant men and women of Bulldog had started. End the Gorean Invasion.

He let his thoughts drift a bit at that thought, for years the nations of the Apilon Rift had lived with the threat of invasion from the fearsome Gorean, an alien race that thrived upon war. Consuming worlds to fuel its massive war machine as it swept outwards, ever expanding to fulfil the appetite of its ravenous broods.

VonGrippen let his eyes drift to the small picture adhered to an out of the way corner of the Δ07's cockpit. It was of his wife, Katherine. Family was the only tie that remained, and even that had been stripped from him. The news of her death should have pained him. Instead it remained locked deep within his heart, away from the warrior that prepared to do battle. He couldn't exist, couldn't thrive in the chaos of war were it not for his capacity to detach himself.

A machine of war, she had called him that. She had hated the man that he had become because of war, because of the Empire.

VonGrippen put that out of his mind for the moment, there was a job to do, and it needed to be done quickly. He smiled grimly as the last of the blips entered the blue field, the Gorean had arrived.

Xier had come to fight.

HMS Excalibur - Nav Point Lima - Apilon Rift Territory

TWO DAYS EARLIER

"He won't eat," VonGrippen said quietly, standing in the doors to his stateroom.

"You're worried," His Adjutant, Ben, observed, sounding tired as he leaned on the side of one of the elevators behind the Excalibur's bridge.

"Well, I'm not exactly equipped to handle this," VonGrippen rumbled, trying to straighten the edge of his worn waistcoat, "Not when I have so much on my mind."

"You'll find a way to deal with it," Ben reassured, smiling a tired smile as he rubbed sore muscles under his oversized tunic. He was looking thin, weary and worn himself. And after months of dodging the Gorean, they were all feeling the weight of war.

"Perhaps," VonGrippen answered, limping on his cane down the corridor and out into the CIC of his bridge, Ben disengaging from the wall reluctantly to follow his old friend.

They were hiding, the Excalibur being ruthlessly hunted by a pack of Gorean Destroyers, led by the merciless Warlord Xier who had tasted victory after destroying General Chow, and was now persecuting anything even remotely Imperial in the war torn sector of space.

Bathed in the green light of the plotting boards, VonGrippen stood, his eyes creased. And to Ben it looked as though he was again regretting the choice that had plunged the five remaining ships of Bulldog into a futile battle for survival.

They were trapped, cut off from the Jump Nexus by an Imperial minefield designed to ensure that the Gorean would never cross to Imperial Territories and establish a foothold. Any chance of relief had been utterly destroyed, Gorean destroyers pouncing upon the main relief fleet on its way to relieve the Expeditionary squadron. There was nothing left, nothing but a desperate cat-and-mouse game that was whittling down their strength, and as the days wore on, drained their spirits.

Only one thing kept the Excalibur alive, and that was VonGrippen.

Ben sat down at the situation table, pulling a pot of tea from its holder, smelling it and pouring himself a cup. He looked up at VonGrippen watching him, the shadows, and the green light, giving him a demonic visage.

"Your grandson just needs time," Ben reassured, "he's not used to you, and you have to realize he's been through a shock. His parents died a few months ago, and he's been dumped here, with a complete stranger… He's six; he doesn't understand what's going on."

"I know," VonGrippen said resting on his cane and frowning. "I am not expecting him to warm to me, but…" he turned his head and looked towards the stateroom.

"But you want him too," Ben nodded. "I know, he's my great nephew, I hardly feel old enough…"

"You're old enough," VonGrippen said firmly. "I've had six years to get used to the idea that I'm a grandfather. Your daughter is married…"

"Yes, but she's been having trouble," Ben sighed. "It's strange, Lance was so hoping for grandchildren."

"But you aren't," VonGrippen's eyes narrowed. "Did you see something?"

Ben raised an eyebrow, "I see many things, and some of my visions are private Alex."

VonGrippen shrugged his shoulders, "forgive me, I sometimes forget that my questions can offend."

"You don't forget," Ben said, knowing VonGrippen far too well, you don't care that they offend. He smiled, "you have a habit of being bluntly direct, and most of the time I appreciate that. However when it comes to Lance, I tend to be protective. You would have little compunction about breaking the news that his daughter is barren, telling him in a manner equivalent to reporting that a transceiver was defective."

VonGrippen arched an eyebrow.

"Damnit!" Ben cursed.

"Now, for a genetically enhanced genius, that was rather easy." VonGrippen scooped up his coffee mug, looking back towards the observation dome. The damage control reports showed the Excalibur's structural damage on a side monitor.

The ship was suffering horribly. The shattered upper weapons pod was little more than a skeletal structure after a Gorean Flier had Kamikazed its way through it. The hull had been blown clear through down towards the mech bays. And much of the ships flight deck was a shambles. Wing Commander Lanford reporting that his VF-54 would be airborne once the deck apes got their act together and actually fixed shit.

They were biding their time, and both the Imperial Admiral and his adjutant knew it.

There was only so long that a fox could stay alive when he was being hunted by a pack of dogs numbering into the millions.

"You think the Gorean will find us soon," Ben observed.

"They will," VonGrippen replied, "we don't have the firepower to keep them at bay, and any strategy I have for victory seems to be anticipated. I'm fighting a man with, singularly, the best information network in the known universe. He knows my moves, often before I do."

"The Gorean possess a seer by the name of Melesande," Ben answered. He spun a set of dividers in front of him, as he stared at them. "She can anticipate your moves and advises His Watchful Eye, who in turn advises Xier. You can beat Xier, if you were simply fighting him. But…"

"Petrov," VonGrippen nodded.

"Why do you call him that?" Ben asked absently.

"His Watchful Eye is a bit of a mouthful," VonGrippen replied. "I used to have a teacher, back on Geldan, who we all believed had eyes in the back of his head, Mister Petrov. This way I can humanize my enemy and stop thinking of him in the deified idealistic fashion. Mister Petrov used to wear glasses, and when he stood at the blackboard, he could literally see behind him in their reflections. The Gorean spy master is the same, an illusion of omniscience, and all I have to do is understand him to outwit him…"

"I understand," Ben answered sipping his tea and sighing blissfully. "As long as you understand him, you are keeping us alive. But how do you beat him?"

"You tell me," VonGrippen shifted his cane and sat down in the seat across from Ben. "How do I beat the Gorean?"

"You are presuming a lot," Ben smiled. "Did it ever occur to you that you may loose?"

"I can see it in your eyes," VonGrippen gestured with his cane. "I don't loose. If I did, you would tell me."

"You're going to beat the Gorean," Ben conceded. "But that's a given. You already know that the key to victory lies in beating Xier, and you already have a plan…"

"I do," VonGrippen replied. "I was looking for confirmation that it would work."

"It does. But it will cost you dearly. No…" Ben stared across the rim of his tea cup, shaking his head. "You want to know something else, something you think I know but haven't told you."

"I know you well," VonGrippen said at length. "I know that when you agreed to come to the Apilon Rift, when I defied the Emperor that you knew you wouldn't be going home again. You read me like a book, but it's your face, Ben, that affords me the same skill."

"You know," Ben smiled faintly, "there are times when I wonder what would have happened had you married me instead of my sister."

"I like you Ben, but not that much." VonGrippen shrugged his shoulders. "We'd certainly not be having this conversation."

"No," Ben said evenly. "But the thought has occurred to you at times. You like me, you understand me. And I think part of you regrets your choice."

"You got Lance," VonGrippen said, drinking from his mug. "I got Katherine. We ended up happy…"

Ben laughed, nearly spitting his tea across the situation table, "happy? The last time you and Katherine were in the same room you both were yelling so much the whole Palace knew. I counted no less than three solid crashes, and am fairly certain that the Ming Dynasty lost a few decent artefacts that day."

"Her aim was always a little off," VonGrippen conceded. "Now why the change of subject?"

"The point is that I'm one of the few people you like. And I mean truly feel something for. And I am here because you asked. Even though I know that I won't survive the Apilon Rift." He smiled a soft smile, "I shouldn't have survived this long. Doctor William's feels that were I not extremely stubborn, I would have gone a long time ago. So if I am to borrow time, I might as well make it count for something."

"For what?" VonGrippen asked softly.

"To be able to open your mind up enough to be receptive to what I have to tell you." Ben shrugged, "you see, before the Apilon Rift, you were the Imperial's Hound. But now you see it for what it is, and perhaps you regret your role in its creation… our role."

VonGrippen sat forward, "and?"

"And now that you are willing to listen to me, maybe I can actually help you." He looked back towards the stateroom, "help you keep that boy in there happy and free. And maybe let your soul find some peace."

"This sounds dire," VonGrippen cradled his mug. "You're going to tell me a prophecy."

"Yours," Ben said quietly. "Of the last knight, of the last king, and of a monastery in the sky."

VonGrippen shifted to sit forward, "go on."

"Peligia, it's the place where everything comes full circle. The beginning of time itself, meeting with the end. You're part of it, and I know that your fate is tied directly to that place. You asked me if I know you're strategy in the Rift will win? I know because I know that you haven't found Peligia yet. And I know that you will discard everything you believe in once you go there."

"I don't think I should know this," VonGrippen said, his tone neutral. Impassive.

"You desire to know the future," Ben said with a shrug. "I am merely a tool that sets your fate into stone. Many believe that because they don't know the future, they are free. Your freedom ends today, Alexander. You are now trapped on an inexorable course that will strip away every last piece of who you are, and leave behind a shell. Doomed to the knowledge that fate has chosen you as its instrument. There are others, equally as doomed as you are. Selected from across time to fulfil their role in a greater dance, and this is my fate. To set you on your course, I've accepted this. And maybe I sacrificed too much to fulfil it… But I think you, of all people, can understand why."

"Why do I have to find Peligia?" VonGrippen asked.

"That's your reason to find," Ben answered. "I merely have to give you a name, and your own mind… that will do the rest. I know that you trust me so implicitly that when I say you must go there, then you must go there. And if I tell you that in order for your Grandson to survive, you need to allow him to die. I know that you will trust that as well, in time."

"You presume much," VonGrippen said, a dangerous calm in his voice.

"Petrov is your friend, your wife is your weakness, your Grandson is your future, and Peligia is your fate. I will not tell you more, there is no need." Ben sighed as he sat back, his eyes looking suddenly very distant. "I am going to need a jump capable dropship."

VonGrippen looked up, troubled. "Why?"

"Because you are going to order me to act as an Emissary to the Gorean and challenge Warlord Xier in the ancient rites of the Gorean. You know that by my walking into the Dragon's lair, you will have your chance to win. And by sacrificing me you begin your road to Peligia." Ben smiled faintly, "don't bother arguing, I already know that you are going to do what I am saying…"

"Your pre-sentience is… annoying," VonGrippen conceded.

"As is your annoying capacity to be right all the time," Ben fired back. "So don't argue with me, issue the order, be right. And let's end things here while we still have the ability to do so…"

VonGrippen stood, shaking his head, "you're not going to just walk into the Dragon's den…"

"I told you, I am not the only seer in this sector. Lady Melesande has already foreseen my arrival, and Xier is expecting it. Your plan is dependant on the Gorean Warlord accepting your challenge, and I am the only way to guarantee that." The Imperial pre-sentient stood as well, offering a half salute to his Commanding Officer. "Issue the order Warlord."

VonGrippen shook his head, "I don't believe in fate."

"Yes you do," Ben said, feeling his eyes beginning to burn. "You've kept a wreck like me around all these years, which tells me you have to believe in fate. I'm sorry for all the things I can't tell you, for all the advice that must go unsaid. But time is the only harvest that grows shorter as the seasons pass. And I am afraid twilight dims my sky." He smiled, "issue the order, Warlord VonGrippen."

VonGrippen turned his head, "Captain Maguire."

"Sir?" Maguire walked back from the bridge at the Admiral's call.

"Prepare a jump capable dropship to convey Ben to the Gorean fleet. I…" VonGrippen's eyes flicked away, dwelling a moment on the golden features of his old friend, the dark, amused eyes that had never lost their life no matter how sick he got.

"I will do as you command," Ben answered saluting and marching from the bridge.

VonGrippen turned his back on his friend, walking painfully towards the Command chair, to the only other soul that understood him. Sinking into Excalibur's embrace as she strove to comfort an emotionless man.

AM-D07 - Eqyr-Ouso - Apilon Rift Territory

Two Days Later

VonGrippen stabbed a button on his TAC-link panel, signalling the Excalibur to open fire.

Within moments, even underwater, VonGrippen tracked the inbound shots from the Excalibur's deck cannons. Moments after that, the ground rumbled with the impact of the shells.

"All right men, light them up!" VonGrippen called out over the TAC-link as he activated his Mech, the soft groan of its fusion reactor powering up reverberated through the cockpit. With that, his HUD screen came alight with targeting data and a single green cross hair in the middle, as his Target Acquisition and Designation System linked to the TAC-link recital over his right eye projected an image of the battlefield, overlaid upon his view of the cockpit and the Plexiglas canopy around him.

The TADS contained stabilised electro-optical sensors, a laser rangefinder and laser target designator capable of rotating +/- 120 degrees in azimuth, +30/-60 degrees in elevation. The movements of TADS were 'slaved' to the Warlords head movements allowing the Mech's weapon systems to track exactly where the Admiral focused. It gave him an unrivalled control over the Δ-07.

A Gorean cluster equalled seventy-five powered armours. The Imperial Guards consisted of four battalions of the Imperial Mech Units, the 91st Force Recon Armoured Calvary, comprised of mostly medium weight Mechs. Then there was the 11th, 151st and 136th Heavy Armoured Battalions, the main striking force of the assault group, Mechs in these three units were heavily armed and packed the majority of the fighting potential for the unit. Not counting its artillery battalion, the regiment numbered eighty-six. While the Gorean had the numbers, the Imperial's had better tech, making the fight even. VonGrippen knew it was going to be a bitter fight before it began; however, he wasn't a man to back down from a fight.

He'd earned his Mech Commanders insignia the hard way. Learning to pilot the machines during the Pacification Campaign that followed the end of the Global Civil War. The machines had completely changed the way that conventional warfare was to be fought, and as an Imperial Warlord, he'd understood the need to understand how the machines fought to be able to use them effectively. He'd fought with them, killed with them, from the earliest models to the advanced Assault Mech he was currently strapped into, preparing to do battle.

"Remember," he ordered tapping controls in the cockpit, his deeply resonant voice calm and devoid of emotion, "no Gorean Powered Armours are to be left operational. This is going to deteriorate into a brawl fast, so I want no high-handed ordering; I intend to fight this battle on the platoon and company level. That means Battalion commanders, keep your nets open, and be prepared to move your forces around to support heavily engaged units, but no orders beyond reinforcements or retreats, Understood?"

"Yes sir," VonGrippen heard four voices over his battalion net receiver as he started to move the Δ07 forward, out of the lake.

Good , he thought, my people knew their jobs, and they will do them. He wouldn't have to interfere, and that meant he could concentrate on finding Xier.

VonGrippen pushed the Δ07 forward, its digitigrade knees and other joints dripping with water as it walked up onto the lakeshore and towards the Gorean powered armour milling about the convoy vehicles that had already been destroyed in the bombardment. The Mech climbed over the rubble, its splayed toes finding sure footing amidst the destruction, bounding from one rock to another as VonGrippen continued the climb towards the precarious structure that jutted out from the mountainside. A squat, fat dome, all that remained of the once proud city of Astrakhan, where the Imperial Mechs had chosen to make their stand.

Mechs were an awe-inspiring sight, but they were as deadly as any of man's tools to make war. It wasn't a day for half measures. There were lives to avenge, a war to win, and a challenge to meet. The battle of Eqyr-Ouso was going to be one of the bloodiest of the war.

VonGrippen spied a Gorean powered, damaged by the artillery strike so that its armour plates were riddled and vulnerable. VonGrippen focused on the holes, the TADS settling its cross-hairs on the damaged sections till they turned gold. His finger stabbed the firing trigger, and felt the right side of his Mech shudder as he fired one of the Δ07's two massive Gauss rifles.

Gauss rifles were in essence, electro-magnetic rail guns, accelerating their spherical ceramic slugs to supersonic speeds, causing devastating damage to an opponent.

Its effect on the Gorean's critically damaged armour was that the slug slammed into the weakened armour plate, ignoring what little armour there was left tearing into delicate machinery beneath, and then into the internal structure. The round had hit and the slug literally snapped the internal skeleton in two. The powered armour exploded violently as its plasma reserves, released from the sealed tanks, literally incinerated the machine from the inside out.

VonGrippen stared coldly, his hand's twirling on the pair of joysticks that manoeuvred the Δ07's systems and kept the two-legged machine upright as he watched the powered armour burn. One down he thought as something flashed off to his side and he heard a male voice cry out over his communications net that he was ejecting.

VonGrippen turned just in time to see the form of a Δ03 going nova as its fusion reactor core was breached. His eyes hardening as he focused his attention upon a battered Muwani tank. The Muwani were a subservient race to the Gorean, allies profiting from the leftovers of their tyrannical masters. The tracked vehicle was spinning as it tried to get traction in the snow, manoeuvring around from the hulking wreckage of what was once the Δ03 as the pilot's ejection couch drifted down to earth on its para-sail. The Muwani's pilot, not content with destroying the Mech, moved to crush the pilot beneath its tracks.

"You may have forgotten the rules of war," VonGrippen stated firmly into the TAC-link as it broadcast across a general channel. The twin arms of Δ07 lifted, as the pair of auto-cannons mounted above the Guass cannons span up as they locked into the same interlock circuit, VonGrippen linking them to fire with one pull of the trigger. "But I will be damned if I allow you to squash one of my men."

VonGrippen's finger tightened on the trigger as the crosshair settled onto the Muwani, the slugs flying from the barrels before the targeting computer had secured a lock. At first the rapid fired automatic weapon's shots skipped off the Muwani's armour, a hail of bullets that were deflected by the angular slope of the tank. The Δ07's arm tracked up, as the bullets found the pivot for the tank's plasma turret, armour splintering off as if it were dried wood. The shots churned the turret up, shattering the machinery and lodging the plasma cannon in place. Unable to return fire with its primary weapon, the tank's pilot had to forget about the downed pilot and focus his attention on the Warlord.

The Muwani brought its two remaining extended-range plasma cannons to face the Δ07 and fired. Twin azure bolts of artificial lightning streaked out, one struck the Δ07 in the shoulder; the other sailed past behind him must likely igniting underbrush as it flew past. The bolt flayed off armour, the molten mettle sloshing off in rivulets. VonGrippen frowned as he fought the controls of the Δ07, but he knew the damage done, while looking like an ugly black scar across the armour, wasn't as serious as it most likely looked. He knew the Δ07; he had piloted it since it had first come off the line at General Motors Mech Division and knew that she could take a lot more punishment than had been just dealt to her.

VonGrippen locked in his own Maser Cannons to the trigger and took careful aim on the mangled armour over the Muwani's turret. When the crosshair turned from green to gold again, VonGrippen tightened his finger over the trigger. The heat inside the cockpit spiked as the excess heat energy poured off as the weapon fired. The internal heat registers detected the spike, as coolant was automatically fed to the onboard fusion reactor, cooling off the mech instantly. The drawback to a machine as complicated as the Δ07 was that if it got too hot, the fusion reactor would go critical and blow everything in a two hundred foot radius sky high.

The Maser Cannon shot struck the Muwani dead-on in the heart of its most damaged section. A gout of sickly black smoke exploded from inside the hole that the bolt had entered, signifying the destruction of part of the engine assembly, followed by a geyser of greenish fluid as the plasma reserve exploded. VonGrippen did not wait for the Muwani pilot to recover as he triggered off both the auto-cannons and carved into the gaping hole in the armour. The slugs severed the remnant of the internal structure holding the tank together. It was just too much for the tank pilot, as he threw open the hatch, struggling to get free as his tank burned behind him.

Contrary to the fate that he had earned by trying to kill the downed Imperial Pilot, VonGrippen allowed the Muwani pilot to live, tilting his auto-cannons up, as the nose mounted Fifty-Calibre machine gun tracked the retreating man, ready to cut him down if he tried anything stupid.

"Admiral watch out!" someone called out over the net and VonGrippen automatically stepped the Mech backwards just as a wash of green plasma fire streaked past his cockpit. VonGrippen turned to see a huge pair of Gorean powered armours standing and facing him, their armour and mottled red paint scheme almost pristine. Xier's personal guard.

The pilot of the lead Gorean powered armour pressed his attack and VonGrippen felt himself battered around in the cockpit as the plasma rifle mounted to the powered armour's back let loose, striking the Δ07 in the leg, boiling off more armour.

VonGrippen returned by firing both his auto-cannons and Gauss rifles. Heat washed over him again as he watched the results of his counter attack against the powered armour. Both ceramic slugs skipped off the torso while only one auto-cannon connected, scarring the armour of the breastplate.

"Bring it backwards about fifty meters Admiral," a feminine voice called out and VonGrippen replied, throttling the Δ07 backwards. The pair of powered armours followed, one walking straight into the line off fire of Lieutenant Colonel Neang's own Mech, a Chinese made Stormer. Dual auto-masers fire lanced from the huge cannon like lower arms of the Mech, the purplish man made lightning sliced the armour of the first powered armour's right side. The second powered armour ignored the new assault and continued to press home the attack on VonGrippen's Δ07, a second plasma shot washing off the armour next to were the gauss gun was mounted. Warning sirens blared in VonGrippen's ear as more shots from the smaller, and more tenacious powered armour peppered his legs. Armour diagrams on the secondary display lit yellow and in a few places amber, but VonGrippen ignored it, pressing his own counter-attack.

The Δ07 shuddered and heat spiked once again as VonGrippen took the chance of firing all his weapons at once. Shutdown sirens blared but Alex quickly slapped the override control, flicking an eye to the heat curve as it spiked into the red, he had almost damaged his reactor shielding with that one, but if he had calculated right…

The auto-cannons stippled the powered armour along the legs, causing minimal damage as Neang pressed her own attack, triggering her two missile packs and one of her auto-maser's into the first powered armour's already damaged right torso, opening a small breach in the armour. It was VonGrippen's heavy weapons that exploited the damage. His Auto-maser's bolt slammed into the damaged area first, opening an even wider hole and bursting another plasma reserve as a geyser of greenish fire erupted out of the hole. One of his Gauss rifle slugs arrived mere moments later, ignoring the now brittle armour and burying itself deep into the internal structure of the powered armour.

VonGrippen smiled as a large explosion erupted from inside the smaller powered armour, signifying that the round had impacted against the ammunition storage, exploding the solid propellant and its fusion core.

His last gauss slug was the killing shot, however, for the second attacker. The round skipped off the jutting helm of the powered armour, the armour there, already scoured by his fifty calibre, simply crumpled, crushing it and killing the pilot. With the pilot dead, the red powered armour simply went limp, dropping its arms with no more intelligence at the controls

"Nice shot Admiral," Neang's voice called over the net a smile in her voice.

"No, a lucky shot," VonGrippen returned as he gasped in the dissipating heat. VonGrippen took a moment to take in the situation around him, and noticed around him the fighting had stopped, Mechs and powered armours were scattered all around, many inactive and destroyed, some Gorean, some Guards. Only Imperial Guards Mechs were active however, signifying, at least around VonGrippen and his command group, the fight was over.

"Battalion Commanders report in," Alex ordered as he took stock of his own squad. His Δ07 was heavily damaged, but still able to fight, Neang's Stormer had taken damage but most of that looked superficial. The Δ03 was completely gone from the hips up, the fusion reactor destroying the entire Mech, but the pilot was alive, his med-beacon sounding on the emergency frequency. Finally there was Command Sergeant Major Kevin Grayson's own Δ05 which was smoking in several places, the missile packs on each shoulder expelling wisps of vapour trails from his last shots.

"11th, we're down five Mechs, no casualties," Lieutenant Colonel Lars Harper called out.

"151st, we're pretty clean, two Mechs down, one casualty, Sergeant Reese has a broken arm and a few cracked ribs," Lieutenant Colonel Alice Macklim reported

"136th, eight Mechs down, no casualties," Lieutenant Colonel Vance Carlson's voice called out as his own Δ07 waved it's weapon arm from a ridge two miles away from VonGrippen's position.

"91st Force Recon, we were hit pretty hard sir," Major Hakori Hallen. "Fifteen Mechs down, several pilots with injuries, and we lost three people."

VonGrippen's eyes tensed as he scanned the battlefield, they'd won Eqyr-Ouso, but where was Xier? Without a win over the Wyrm himself, there victory would be pyrrhic at best.

"Echo X-ray, this is Delta-Dash-Oh-Seven requesting eagle eye over target area." VonGrippen flipped over to the command frequency again.

"Negative Delta- Seven," Captain Maguire called into the radio, "we're currently engaged with seven Gorean Destroyers and are unable to render assistance."

VonGrippen leaned forward in his seat, glancing up at the dim morning sky, towards where a brilliant star was surrounded by brilliant flashes. If he couldn't find Xier then the Excalibur would die, and everything the pilots around him had fought for would be for nothing.

"Delta-Dash-Oh-Seven to all field and aerial units," he switched frequency again, "I need eyes on target. Where is Xier?"

"Delta-Seven, this is Paladin-leader," Colonel Tam Lanford called over the TAC-link, "I have a Gorean transport on rapid ascent, requesting clearance to pursue."

VonGrippen hauled a leather glove off of his hand as he pushed his grey hair out of his eyes, moving the damaged Δ07 around, "Proceed Paladin-One. Shoot to disable that transport." VonGrippen's eyes swept over his tactical panels, "Delta-Seven to Stormer-One, I am going to need you to secure this site and stand by for hot EVAC. Delta-Seven to Super-Four-Four, requesting aerial pick up."

"Confirmed," came the pair of replies as Neang's Mech marched away to begin the marshalling of the surviving Imperial forces, while an Imperial dropship screamed low over the smouldering battlefield to scoop up the Δ07. Magnetic tethers engaging as the powerful Imperial vessel powered its way skywards, whisking the Warlord after the fleeing High Gorean.

Δ07 picked its way around a crumbling tower, buckled almost whole when the city had collapsed under its own weight. The end of a civilization, a way of life, and an era.

It always fascinated VonGrippen to imagine what the city must have been like before its fall, an artificial plateau high over the world below, a pinnacle of construction achievement over the will of nature. That was until the Gorean had cast the entire city down with their orbital bombardment.

VonGrippen activated the boosters, allowing Δ07 to jump across a small chasm created when one of the Tancred temples statues had crashed through a boulevard, its great head rolling to look up towards the former palace, its face smashed into a grotesque smile, as if predicting an inevitable fate.

Wiping his exhausted brow with the back of his hand, his creased eyes scanned the drifting snow as it flitted down about him. Lanford's F-120 was pulling a low circuit overhead, guiding him in towards the crash site. But with the snow and the smoke, the fighter wasn't much help. That left the old Admiral and the Wyrm alone in the ruins of the city.

He caught the motion in the shadows of the ruins, a blur of dark motion closing on him, and years of instincts had him spin the Mech, the weapons cycling up as he studied the shadowy windows of the broken buildings around him. Dark stones and recessed shadows that provided concealment for the hunter. His eyes flicked left and right as he maintained the broad stance he had learned so long ago now, a slight smile dancing on his face. His stalker was considering a moment to strike, choosing a point when the Mech pilot would start to feel safe.

"You were foolish to come alone 'Lexie," the TAC-link crackled as Xier transmitted on a broad channel.

"I'm never foolish," VonGrippen warned as the TADS sensors switched from Infra-red to ultra-violet trying to penetrate the gloom. "And we have had a conversation already that my name isn't 'Lexie."

"It humanizes you," Xier mocked. "It makes you less the demon that my people believe you to be, Pax… and makes you nothing more than a mere human."

The Δ07 braced a toed-foot on a pile of rubble, as its torso pivoted, flood lights activating on its shoulder mounted missile-packs, bathing the dark-gloom of the shattered city in light. VonGrippen tensed in his seat, his eyes sweeping back across the ruins of Astrakhan looking for any sign of movement.

"I do the same with your Master, Petrov," VonGrippen replied, his finger stroking the trigger, waiting for an attack.

"He enjoys the name, once your seer informed him of it," Xier answered. "Of course he told a great many things when he was put to the question."

VonGrippen felt a flush of emotion sliding around the iron-cold shield about his heart. "Then you know I can't be baited like that," he answered quietly.

"Petrov said as much. Though I wanted to test it. A man bereft of emotion, stripped of feeling, no wonder you won't give in, you fear nothing." Xier sounded amused, "you're going to die today, Lexie."

VonGrippen unzipped the leather jacket he was wearing, adjusting his harness straps, tightening them. "Get on with it Xier, I don't have all day."

"I do," Xier taunted. "The longer this fight goes on, the more you stand to loose. Your ship is battling for its life, and in its iron belly is that beautiful grandson of yours. A delicious morsel from what Petrov suggests…"

VonGrippen backed the Mech up slowly, reaching up to switch the Mech's fire-control from the Close in Weapons to the missile systems. Opening the protective blast shields on the missile packs and inputting target co-ordinates as he re-seated his hands back onto the controls.

"My father used to take me quail hunting," VonGrippen mused into the TAC-link. "And I think you're about to learn that there is little difference between you, and a quail."

He pulled the trigger, launching sixty-four SLA-11's from the launchers. The missiles roaring free of the missile pack, their contrails blowing through the snow and the smoke as they hurtled upwards. VonGrippen's eyes snapping to the TADS motion display as he reactivated the CIWSs.

"That was pointless…" Xier began as the missiles roared upwards.

"We have a law on Earth," VonGrippen murmured tightening his jaw. "What goes up, must come down."

The missiles arced over, their guidance systems adjusting their trim as they zeroed in on the shattered city of Astrakhan, forming out into a broad spread crashing to the Earth in a cacophony of din. Explosions ripping through the silent ruins as they turned crumbling stone into shrapnel.

The billowing coil of scales erupted from the exploding city, curling and boiling as its long front legs powered it with shocking agility, massive jaws lashing out at the Δ07 that boosted upwards on its booster pack, leaping over the Wyrm as it crashed past. Auto-cannons roaring as the bullets smattered along hardened scales that absorbed the punishment the weapons blasted out with.

Both the great Gorean and the techno-knight crashed back to the ground, VonGrippen switching to the Guass gun as he fired a pair of shots, literally blowing off the Wyrm's right wing at the mid-joint.

Xier rolled in pain as his club like tail lashed out, bashing against the Mech and tossing it backwards, sending it staggering as its gyros tried to keep it upright. Driving the Mech back past the broken statue and out onto the frozen ice sheet that ended in the sheer drop over the cliff face.

Both combatants took pause, and VonGrippen gritted his teeth, feeling the feet of his Mech slip on the ice as the Δ07 slid around to keep its balance, his opponent moving like a deadly cat circling around him, that wicked tail hovering waiting to strike.

"I have a message for you, Lexie," Xier said as he swept in again, changing his fighting stance and throwing his weight into a mighty tail sweep, masterfully slamming Δ07 backwards with carefully timed long blows, now he had the human on the defensive, driving him back towards the edge, it was only a matter of time.

"Deliver it," VonGrippen demanded as he tried to fire his auto-cannons again, drive the Gorean back to range.

Xier's massive clawed hand closed on the Mech's arm, muscles rippling as he tore it free tossing the weapons away as the Mech stumbled again, reeling.

Alarms were shrieking in VonGrippen's cockpit as he opened up with the Fifty-Calibre, using the bullets, little more than slaps to the Gorean, to beat him off again as the Mech struggled to stay upright and away from the precipice.

"That resurrection is within the purview of the Peligians. Only they can return to you that which was stolen from you…" Xier lunged forward, snapping with his teeth. "Our Seeress told me to tell you…" he dropped low, sweeping Δ07's feet out from under it as he pulled his Claws down, pinning the Mech's torso down against the ice sheet. "…as I prepared to kill you!"

VonGrippen's head reeled as he stared up through the spider-webbed Plexiglas at the gaping maw of teeth. His Mech still holding power, but its master computer registering that all weapons were offline. Δ07 had nothing left to give…

Knowing that there was only one option left open to him, VonGrippen's hand's latched onto the ejection T-bar, hammering the self-destruct code before he wrenched it. The Canopy's explosive bolts detonating, as the ejection seat blasted the Warlord away from the downed Mech and out over the Precipice.

Xier stared in surprise at the fleeing Human, emitting a titanic roar as he arched his great neck and fanned his hood.

The Mech's Fusion reactor went critical, detonating, shredding Δ07 into deadly shrapnel as the blast wave incinerated everything within a two-hundred foot sphere. The cliff edge rumbled and cracked, splintering under the weight that it was no longer capable of supporting. Casting the bloodied Gorean on a quarter mile drop, the collapsing ruins caving in after it to bury Xier beneath the ruin he had caused.

VonGrippen's ejection seat righted itself, the Para-sail engaging as he curved about over the chilled mountain air of Eqyr-Ouso. Reaching up to touch his TAC-link earpiece.

"Delta-Seven to Excalibur. Mission Accomplished. Transmit the demand for the Gorean to cease fire…"

As he drifted downwards he rested his head back against the chair, allowing the moment to wash past him. Resurrection is within the purview of the Peligians…

"Katherine."

Luna Base - Terran System - Imperial Territory


~~*~~

The press conference was being carried live around the world, and to Luna Base, Mars, and the Home fleet. But where many were finding cause for concern in VonGrippen's contentions, there was one viewer aboard the satellite who merely laughed it off. He had a drink in hand, his feet crossed on the top of the monitor in his spacious quarters.

VonGrippen was overplaying the role, Grand Master Fëdor told himself as he set the drink aside. But his performance would have the desired effect nonetheless.

Fëdor knew even then that the Religious factions would eventually gain the upper hand. If necessary, the death of Cardinal Kardiac Strathcona saw to that. And Bishop Sinosec, whom they had spent years grooming for high office, would ascend to the seat reserved for him, acting as the Highlord until the youth Kardiac Aul'Jakaram was ready to take up his mantle.

Kardiac stood mutely beside the table wearing his Templar novice's uniform, ready to obey. He had cold and hard eyes that were transfixed upon the screen, and on the face of the ageing Admiral that was waving off more questions as he stalked away.

Fëdor fingered the ugly raised scars that coursed across the right side of his forehead and face-diagonally, from his hairline to the bridge of his nose, and from there in a reverse angle to the heel of his jawbone. The eye at the apex of this triangular disfiguration was dead, sewn shut to a dark slash. He would not be around to reap the immediate rewards of these complex conspiracies and manipulations, but all that could wait until his return from the Apilon Rift. First, there were scores to settle with older adversaries, scores that went back more than thirty years.

"He is weak," Kardiac commented, looking at the Templar Grand Master.

"Admiral VonGrippen is an instrument of war," Fëdor said calmly. "He was born to it, and like any weapon, he was forged, moulded and tempered. It is said that he calls forth the storms, and avenging angels fight at his bequest…" Fëdor smiled. "VonGrippen is a dangerous man, never forget that, he is one with the art of war, and to defeat him a man must cease to be all that he is and become like him… and even then it won't be enough. Do yeh understand?"

Kardiac's eyes flashed, "I do."

"Good," Fëdor said with a cruel smile. "Then I have a task for yeh, take the Gladius of Michael and travel to the Gorean Imperium, there yeh must find the shrine of Z'ræl…"

Kardiac knew better than to ask a question of the Grand Master, but his eyes were troubled.

Fëdor swung his wooden chair about on its pivots, "there is a war that will come, and with it a fire like none other. Yeh must be armed to fight in that war. Go and recover the sword of Z'ræl as detailed in the Gorean holy texts." Fëdor lifted a worn scroll. "It is fortunate that something good has come of VonGrippen's crusade against the Gorean… it may have provided us with a weapon …"

Against who was an unasked question that Kardiac longed to ask.