"Hold it!" Lisa said, standing up. "No way, this is a bad dream! That's it!"

"I'm afraid you're wrong about that, Lisa." Edmund said evenly. "Deny it all you like, what has happened in Gaia is happening here. And if I'm not mistaken, Rosalyn has opened the door to make it possible."

"Don't remind me." Rosalyn groaned.

"Is there any way to close it?" Toria asked.

Edmund shook his head. "I have no idea." He replied. "For now, all we can do is stem the flow of Animated."

"How...what...how is this happening if Gaia is just a website?" Lisa interjected.

Immediately Amria was angry. "Gaia is not just a website, idiot!" She snapped. "It's a whole other world--"

"Miss Fasaka, calm down." Edmund said firmly. "I believe that everyone here needs an explanation, not just Lisa."

Amria didn't reply, just sat down, fuming. "You kids can disengage your Rings, it looks like that wave is over." Edmund said.

The group did so, turning back into their normal selves. "So, what's all this about? I know you've said that Gaia is another universe, but..." Kira trailed off.

Edmund nodded. "But there are great differences between this world's website, Gaia Online, and the actual Gaia. Not everyone on the site exists in Gaia." He explained, motioning for the group to take seats. He sat as well in one of the deck chairs, leaning his cane against the deck railing. "The races you're familiar with exist there, yes, as do the towns you know. And, of course, the characters you know.

"What I believe happened to bring the Animated here in the first place--and Johnny has come to the same conclusion--is Rosalyn's attempt to combine magick and technology. Those violet burns on the grass is a remnant of it." He motioned to the spot in question. "I suspect that's where the main portal is as well. To be safe, I suggest you rope it off in some way to keep anyone from blundering in. Who knows what could happen should someone fall into Gaia by accident."

"That would be bad." Raina said.

"Very." Edmund agreed. "As for how the Animated came to be...something called Null Energy runs between our two universes, acting as a barrier and a power condiut. It keeps the world both seperate and working properly. Think of it as a river, with estuaries branching off in different directions. That's how the Null Energy acts. The main river runs between the universes, and the estuaries run into them, keeping the universe alive and running with the Null Energy required. The flow to either universe will change as more Null is required to keep it alive."

"That doesn't explain the Animated." Lisa pointed out.

"I'm getting to that. The Null Energy is almost pure magick. Some can access it, some can't. There's more people in Gaia who can access it, so more Null is needed for my universe." Edmund explained. "This is both a good and a bad thing. It's good in the fact that it's a nearly constant supply of magickal energy. It's bad in the fact that as more magick is used, the more likely an overflow is to happen.

"About a year ago such an overflow happened. Nobody knows where it started, or how it happened, but I have my suspicions." Edmund leand over on the table, resting on his elbows. "When the Null overflow happened, nearly everything in Gaia was infected. Normally inanimate objects began moving on their own, becoming creatures themselves, although not many had true intelligence. Those that did, took the most lives." He paused, letting the group take in the information so far.

"But it's gotten worse since." Laurenciel said in a hushed voice.

Edmund nodded, his face grave. He sat back. "It took longer than you want to realize before we finally found a way to combat the Animated, as they were called. Johnny, Agatha, Cresento, Brennivin and myself devised a way to harness the Null energy to fight the animated. It was Brennivin who came up with the idea to channel the power through Rings, rather than the weilder's body." He pointed to the Rings on Nolie's fingers. "By channelling the power though Rings rather than the weilder's body, it caused far less damage, and didn't shorten their lives as it normally would."

"Why?" Lisa asked. "Why would it shorten their lives?"

"Because, like Edmund said, Null Energy is pure, undiluted, uncontrolled magick." Rosalyn said. She opened her palm, and concentrated on summoning a flame. A moment later, a flame was burning a few inches abover her hand, giving off heat and light. "The magick trained mages like I use has been diluted and tamed. Uncontrolled or undiluted magick will harm the person using, ultimately causing permanent damage. If a person continues using raw magickal power, or Null Energy, it will kill them."

"Exactly," Edmund said. "The Rings prevent this from happening, allowing someone to use pure Null Energy without any adverse side effects, apart from exhaustion. Even though the Rings tap into the Null without harming the user, it still takes energy on the part of the person wearing their Rings to activate them and keep them that way.

"As for the Animated, they are as real as you or I. They can cause very real damage. I believe I would be correct in assuming that the first Animated outbreak caused deaths, didn't it?" Everyone nodded. "The death toll will only go up, I guarentee you, unless someone steps up to stem the flow of Animated and keep them under control. What I fear is that the only way to stop the Animated is to shut off Gaia and Earth, but that seems to be out of the question now." He studied each of them in turn, including Lisa. "I suggest you try recruiting as many people to this fight as possible. If you can, then you may be able to avert the same disaster that has happened in Gaia, maybe even finding a solution."

"What...what happened in Gaia?" Nolie asked quietly.

"The Towns were cut off. Communications are still down, other than an intermittent way of communicating via radio. Right now, we have to use couriers to get messages from town to town, and not many people are willing to take up those jobs." Edmund replied. "Within the towns is reliatively safe, and people are going about their daily buisness again. The main reason is Null Shields have been set up around the perimeters to keep the Animated out. It's just when you go outside the shields that it's dangerous, and I can't tell you how many couriers have been killed delivering messages."

Everyone was silent for a few minutes. "So, this is all real after all, huh?" Lisa asked.

"Took you long enough." Toria grumbled.

Lisa glared at her, but didn't reply. "How would someone who isn't on the website start fighting these things?" She asked. "I mean, I might not like the town itself, but my friends live here, and from the sounds of things it's pretty nasty and you guys need all the help you can get."

"That's where we Shards come in!" Amria said. Everyone jumped, having forgotten that the Dark Elf was still there. "If you're not on Gaia, we can Forge an account for you guys, meaning you'll be able to fight as a member of Gaia with Rings and everything, even though you won't have a proper account."

"Sounds almost like you'll get thrown into it without much of a tutorial, like in the game." Raina said.

"The game zOMG is nothing like the real deal, fighting the Animated in reality." Amria said. "Don't get too cocky about it; just because you're doing well now doesn't mean you'll keep that streak going."

***


Arens whistled. Dahlia took a long drink of her Mountain Dew. "Talk about rough," he said. "My buddy's still in the hospital because of an Animated bunch of Christmas tree lights. They did a doozy on him."

"I believe it." Tobias said. He looked up to see someone coming towards their table. "Hey! Over here! And keep that cat outta my hair!"

"Then don't step on my tail, moron." The cat replied. Arens and Dahlia looked around to see a rather familiar half-vampire striding towards them, with a cat on his shoulder.

"Ian?!" The two blurted in unison.

"What's that make me? A ball of fur?" Rufus the cat asked indignantly.

"Yes." Tobias said, picking up his tray to make room for the cat. Rufus hissed at him.

"Calm downl Ruf." Ian said, sitting. "Looks like you've explained pretty much everything do them, Tobias."

Tobias nodded, setting his tray down in his lap. "These two seem to be familiar with the weird factor, it seems." He said. "And Arens here seems to think he can use Null Energy without the Rings."

"I doubt that." Ian said, facepalming.

"Bet I can!" Arens said. Dahlia sighed. "I have the power to control the elements, modify gravity, even form chaos into something coherent--"

"Null's none of those, my friend." Ian sighed. "But if you really think so, go right ahead. Don't blame me if you sprout a new set of arms or something."

"Don't tempt him." Dahlia said.

Arens didn't appear to hear Dahlia's statement. Instead, he took up Ian's challenge, tapped into the Null conduit nearest....

...And ended up getting blasted across the food court, landing flat on his back with his hair sticking up, sparking. "Ow."

"Told you." Ian said, walking over and helped him up. Everyone in the food court was staring. "Now do you believe me?"

"Yeah, pure energy manipulation is a bad idea." Arens said, attempting to flatten his hair but getting a bad shock instead.

Dahlia snickered. "You look like you've got an afro now." She said, laughing at Arens' hair.

"Very funny. Yours would look just as bad. No, wait," he said, sitting gingerly. "Yours would look worse."

Dahlia replied by squirting the Mountain Dew in her mouth at his face.

"Hey! Watch it!" Rufus yelped, jumping into Ian's lap to avoid the pop fountain.

"Sorry, had to tell Arens he was being an idiot somehow." Dahlia replied.

"At least I'm not Laurenciel." Arens said, wiping his face off.

Dahlia laughed. "He'd probably try and make one of the OMGs a pet!"

"I hope somebody tells him it'd be a bad idea," Ian sighed. "So, this may sound like a redundant question, but can I trust the lot of you to fight the Animated?"

"Heck yes," Arens said.

"What he said." Dahlia added.

Ian smiled and nodded. "That's what I was hoping you'd say."

***


"So, looks like you've got a new world to run loose in."

The man looked to the one who'd spoken. "Tell me something I don't already know." He said. "How's our prisoner?"

"Still hasn't cracked." The other man, a slender, tall, white-haired demon walked out of the shadows. "Do you want me to kill him, master?"

"No, don't even try." The man said. "Vampires are not easy to kill, not by a long shot." He looked away from the window, to meet his servant's eyes. The servant flinched slightly, but did not retreate. Good. "Let him sleep for now. When he wakes, whenever that may be, I'll have some questions of my own to ask."

The demon frowned. "Are you sure that's a good idea, master? You know how strong his father was--"

"I don't need reminding of how powerful Von Helson blood is, fool." The man said. "Why else do you think I told you to use the Binding chains?"

"Of course," The demon said, bowing slightly. "He was weak when we captured him, and the chains have denied him the use of his vampiric powers, to regain his strength." He breathed a small laugh. "That, and we've been denying him blood as well...."

The man nodded. "Let him sleep," he repeated. He turned back to the window. "You may go."

The demon bowed and left.

"I have my own questions for you, Louie Von Helson."