Disclaimer: Daria and associated characters are owned by MTV. This is fan fiction written for entertainment only. No money or other negotiable currency or goods have been exchanged. Original characters and plot copyright Richard J. Lobinske. 2008. The Origins of the Ringbearers stories are part of the shared universe that evolved at Paperpusher's Message Board. Details of the Ringbearer shared universe and Daria Multiverse can be found at the DariaWiki.
Let Vengeance Ring
Earth: Universe D-899. Present day.
A faint crescent Moon glowed through low clouds overhead as Daria ducked into the burned-out alley and stopped to rest for a moment. She wore an olive green field jacket over a similar, utilitarian jumpsuit, all of which was battered and torn by too much combat. Her formerly long auburn hair had been cut short and she wore combat safety glasses instead of her old, round frames. Her tired and battered appearance matched what was left of Lawndale. The town was a burned-out ruin with only the broken shells of buildings still standing.
Daria held a monocle-like device over one eye and scanned the opposite wall for a long-hidden device. With it, she saw through the hologram that concealed the Architects' Portal behind the remains of the Good Time restaurant. Good, she thought, for whatever it's worth. I doubt if I'll really be able to find anything left in the ruins when I get there.
The patina covered coppery ring on her right hand let her know that the latest pursuer was near. "Damn," she muttered, putting the monocle away. Knowing that she'd have to kill him before she could make her escape undetected, she grumbled, "I don't have the energy for this."
A tall man in a black uniform hovered into view at the end of the alley. A similar ring was on one of his fingers. He gazed at Daria and said, "They're all gone. Join us."
"No," Daria said without emotion.
"You are one of us. You know it in your heart."
"I am not one of you, Ringwraith, but I will take your ring from your cold, dead finger," Daria said, sending a powerful blast of quintessence at her opponent.
His shield held against the blow, but the force still caught him enough by surprise for him to be thrown into the ruins across the street.
The ground around Daria rippled and then rose up, attempting to encase her, catching her foot as she tried to fly clear. The sudden stop, recoil and fall resulted in a loud snap as the bones of her lower leg broke. She angrily blasted the top of the mound away and rolled to the base, willing her ring to ignore the injury to save power.
The Ringwraith flew around the mound and began telekinetically slinging shards of glass transmuted into diamond at Daria while also keeping her surrounded with a ball of fire.
Daria kept up just enough force shield to protect her from the fire while against the diamond shards, she carefully maneuvered a small telekinetic shield so that they only struck glancing blows, requiring less energy than a static defense. Exhaustion and fatigue had taken their toll and eventually a shard slipped past and struck her side. Daria fell back and again had to will the ring not to spend energy healing her wound, holding her hand against it to stop the bleeding. Closer...
Sensing his victim weakening, the Ringwraith stopped, hovered closer and evilly looked down on Daria. "Last chance."
"Good, I'm tired of listening." Daria reached into her jacket and grasped the grip of a pistol nestled in a shoulder holster. "Didn't anyone tell you that I cheat?" In one fluid motion, she raised and aimed the laser pistol at the Ringwraith's head, then pulled the trigger, knowing that the alchemically-based ring was ineffective against a technological weapon.
The target's eyes had just enough time to begin widening before the megawatt beam passed through his shield and struck his skull, burning a hole into his brain. There, water in the tissue instantly turned into high-temperature steam that blew the man's head apart.
Daria crawled to the lifeless body, took a box from a leather holder on her belt and pressed a code on the front to open it. She yanked the stained ring from the man's finger and dropped it into the box with several others held within a faint, green glow. "One more, Sis."
She pulled herself up and hopped back to the portal before leaning against the wall next to it. Daria cleared her mind and used the ring to sense for life, letting it expand out to its limit. No normal humans were within range, which didn't surprise her. What was left of the Earth's population had retreated to Lawndale with the last of the Ringbearers a month before. Succumbing to the unrelenting attrition of attack after attack, the defenses had failed and the Ringwraiths had slaughtered all before them. Now, the hundred or so Ringwraiths and their allied metahumans that scoured the ruins of town looking for her were the only other life forms left on the poisoned, dead planet.
"Now it's time for them to learn the meaning of 'Scorched Earth.'"
Drawing upon every ounce of will and every remaining bit of power in the ring, she put a force shield around the planet's core and transmuted the contents into the same weight of hydrogen. Deliberately, she shrunk the shield, compressing the already hot gas and raising the temperature within until a sustained fusion reaction started.
Everyone she had known and cared for was gone. To Daria, it seemed somehow fitting that things would end where they began for her; in Lawndale. She softly said, "Goodbye," and turned, falling more than stepping through the portal as her ring shut down.
Inside the planet, the shield vanished and the small, short-lived star Beta Sol was born.
Nova Valdris: Universe D-247. Present day.
The two flawless crystalline obelisks of Beacon Terra One soar over 420 meters above Nova Valdris, creating one of the signature sights of the Corps of Ringbearers' main headquarters. Between their bases stands the 10 meter wide Prime Portal, the main interdimensional gateway between Nova Valdris and the Multiverse. A gentle springtime breeze blew through the courtyard before the Portal while one Ringbearer proudly stood guard at each corner. By tradition, a Master Ringbearer had the honor to stand on a balcony above the courtyard to command the guards. In their blue formal uniforms, all of them stood as still and confident as the Queen's Guards at Buckingham Palace back on Earth.
At the automatic warning, their heads abruptly turned to face the portal as did a few moments later, every other Ringbearer on that hemisphere. It had been hundreds of years since anyone had opened an Architects' Portal there, let alone one connected to an unknown universe. A small woman fell out of the brief, blue flash and onto the polished paving stones. By the time the first two guards had flown to her, a small pool of blood had formed on the ground by her side.
One placed his hands against the woman's side and they started to glow blue. He gasped not so much at her current injuries, but at the faint scars of an almost unimaginable number of old, healed wounds.
Daria looked up and the first thing she saw was sunlight on the spires. "I'm dreaming," she hoarsely whispered.
The healing Ringbearer said, "Rest easy. You've been through a lot."
The second Ringbearer said, "She has a ring, but what happened to it?"
The first said, "I've never seen one tarnished like that."
The Master Ringbearer landed and knelt beside them. "What do we have?"
"A badly wounded Ringbearer," the first guard said. "But I don't recognize her."
The second said, "She must've been through hell; look at her Defender Ring."
The Master Ringbearer stared at the ring in horror. "That's not a Defender Ring."
Earth, Universe D-899. 35 months ago.
Quinn poked her head into her sister's room and said, "Come on Daria, let's go shopping."
Laying her on bed, reading, Daria set her book aside and said, "Quinn, have you utterly lost your mind?"
Quinn pushed the door further open. "No. You're leaving for college in a couple of weeks, right?"
"Nobody to my knowledge has altered the flow of time, so that would be, yes."
"You're going to need clothes for Boston. Don't even pretend that you're going to get away with what you've worn for the last couple of years. Even you aren't that clueless."
"Okay, I admit that I'll need some new clothes. That still doesn't explain why you're so eager to take me shopping. I thought we were past the makeover stage."
Trying another tactic, Quinn said, "Do you want Mom to take you shopping?"
"That's not going to work."
Quinn's shoulders dropped a little and she earnestly said, "I want to spend some time with you before you go. I can't help you with books or computers or other college stuff like that, but I can help with clothes."
Daria had to stop and admit that a part of her was going to miss her sister, no matter how much they may annoy each other. "Okay, Quinn. I think I can tolerate a small amount of sisterly bonding before I go off to Raft. One condition."
"If you don't want to accept 'no' from me, you better make a good argument for why I should change my mind. 'Cute' or 'trendy' are not good arguments."
Quinn nodded, happy for the chance. "Deal."
"Reports of the catastrophe in China's Guangdong province are still confused, but weather satellite imagery has confirmed that an area approximately six miles in diameter fell into complete darkness. No seismic activity and no unusual weather were recorded for the area. Authorities have made no official estimates of casualties, but unconfirmed sources say that at least thousands are dead. Property damage is also reported as extensive," an announcer's voice said over the car radio.
Stopping their father's car at the Lawndale Mall, Daria said, "That sounds more like something from Sick, Sad World than from NPR. I mean, total darkness and all loss of broadcast telecommunications?"
Quinn sternly looked at Daria. "We're here to shop and have fun, not to worry about the news."
"Remember that we're shopping for more than just clothes. You have to tolerate the bookstore and a few other stops, too."
"A deal's a deal, Daria."
Enjoying their day together, Daria just thought, She really is helping. Dammit, why did we have to fight so much for so long? before Quinn held up a red blouse. Daria said, "I really like it except...don't you think the neckline is cut a little low?"
"Come on, Daria. I know you're not a cold fish - and you just might find some college boy you want to really impress."
Daria looked down. "I don't think of these as really impressive."
The lights in the mall went out and they were surrounded by complete darkness. No signs of emergency lights or even daylight from the distant storefront windows were present. Quinn squeaked and Daria took a step toward her, also very frightened. "Stay calm, Quinn," she said.
"What's going on?"
"I don't know."
"You don't know?"
Daria reached Quinn and grabbed her hand. "Sorry, but I don't."
"Is this like that thing in China?"
"Get your cell phone," Daria said.
After a moment, Quinn said, "It's not working. I can't even see the button lights."
Daria gulped. "I'm afraid it might be."
"What do we do?" Quinn said, nearing panic.
"Getting under some cover can't hurt," Daria suggested, feeling the edge of the display table and then pulling Quinn under.
Somewhere in the mall, they heard a loud bang and crash of masonry and glass, followed by screams. Eerily, the sound suddenly ceased, like someone hitting a mute button on a television remote.
Quinn said, "We have to get out of here!"
"How?" Daria said. "We're nowhere near an exit and there's no straight path to one. Even if we get out of the building, we could be several miles from the edge of the darkness, if this is anything like what happened in China."
A cloud of dust silently blew past them, making Quinn pull closer to Daria. To their surprise, a bright beam of light illuminated the air over them, coming from the hand of a woman who appeared to be in her thirties and wearing a red coverall covered with pockets. The other end of the beam was focused on a figure in a black uniform. Something like lightning flashed between the two as they hovered and circled, appraising each other. Though the power to the building was now out, the emergency lights appeared, as if they had already been on and light again flowed from the windows.
Quinn gasped, "They're flying! Are they Ringbearers?"
Daria whispered, "Maybe, though they haven't been seen since the 1919 Zombie Pandemic. But be quiet, I don't want their attention."
"Hello," the figure in black said, looking at Quinn. She was pulled from Daria's grasp, drawn to the figure and held in mid-air. He then said to the woman, "Surrender and take off your ring."
"Let the hostage go," the woman said, moving closer.
"When you surrender," he said. "Or do you need some convincing?" A ball of fire appeared around Quinn's left foot, searing away her shoe and pants leg. She screamed in pain and started sobbing uncontrollably. After a couple seconds, a blue glow appeared around her foot and the burned flesh was healed.
The woman flew high and to the right, creating a series of glittering, crystal-like bolts that flew toward the man's head. He telekinetically jerked Quinn around as a shield and at the very last moment, the bolts were deflected by some sort of force field. The man repeated the woman's attack, though targeting Quinn and ripping ugly wounds through her abdomen. Quinn cried out and slumped. The man grinned and a blue glow formed around her, healing the deep wounds. "I can keep this up all day and enjoy watching this girl suffer. And she will, as long as you defy me."
"Surrender and relinquish your ring. Help will arrive soon and you'll be outnumbered," the woman warned.
"My help is closer, Ringbearer."
The woman tried many different moves, distractions, or indirect attacks to rescue Quinn. For a couple moments, it looked like Quinn was the subject of a telekinetic tug of war. To Daria's horror, with each failure, the man did something horrible to torture Quinn and then healed her.
I can't take this anymore. I don't care if they're having some kind of Ringbearer Civil War, I have to do something. Daria dug through her recent purchases until she found what she wanted: her new stun gun. I didn't think I'd have to use this in Lawndale.
"Is that all you can do?" the man said.
"My backup will be here shortly," the woman said. "Let the hostage go and surrender."
"I tire of this game," the man said. Quinn turned into a puff of yellow powder and a howling wind scattered much of it through the store.
"Quinn!" Daria shouted.
The man telekinetically brushed Daria aside and charged the Ringbearer, saying, "Now I will kill you."
The woman charged forward and their impact caused a shudder to run through the entire mall building, knocking more loose masonry down. Both were wrapped in fire as they struggled. From time to time, the Ringwraith tossed a random attack at Daria, forcing the Ringbearer to protect the young woman by countering or diverting the blow. Amid the fight, a shard of broken glass was picked up and became the target of a telekinetic wrestling match. Daria couldn't be certain, but the glass seemed to have changed and it didn't glitter in the limited light the same way as before. After long minutes, the will of the Ringwraith took control and the shard was slowly pushed through the Ringbearer's throat.
The woman dropped to the floor as blood sprayed from her severed arteries. The Ringwraith lowered to the ground and surrounded the Ringbearer with fire that wore away at the remaining shield around the fallen warrior.
Grief and anger overcame Daria and she dared to dart out from where she'd been thrown, ignored by the Ringwraith. She jammed the stun gun against the Ringwraith's neck and pulled the trigger, holding it there as the surprised man fell to the ground. She continued holding the gun against him until the battery was drained. When it stopped, Daria looked around and saw the glass shard, which was undamaged from the fall. She pulled the end of her sleeve over her hand, grabbed the shard and slashed it deeply across the Ringwraith's neck. Unnoticed, a faint blue glow started around the wound. Looking down, Daria saw a tarnished, copper-colored ring on his hand. "Ringbearer bastard," she grumbled and pulled it off. The man suddenly heaved and gurgled. Daria slashed again and the Ringwraith dropped back down, still.
Daria heard a faint cough and spun around, thinking to see Quinn. Instead, the Ringbearer, covered in her own blood, had sat up. She said, "Thank you, and for your safety, can you please give me that ring?"
Daria growled and pushed it onto one of her fingers. "The hell I will. What happened to my sister?"
"She was the hostage?"
"Yes. Where is she?"
"I'm so sorry, but she's gone. There's no way we can save her."
"Can't, or won't?"
"I would save her if I could, but...there's no way. Even if we could gather up all of what's left of the sulfur she was turned into, too much of it was burned up in the fighting." The Ringbearer sat up straighter and said, "Damn."
A firm voice behind Daria said, "Welcome to us, young Ringwraith. We can finish off this weakling and then I'll teach you the ways of our people."
Daria's anger raged and she spun, spitting out, "I'm not one of you!" Somehow through the ring, she felt a connection to the energy that seemed to ebb and flow all around: quintessence. All of her anger became a channel to direct that energy at the newcomer.
The second Ringwraith never knew what hit him. When the blue-white burst of energy was gone, a ring fell from the air and rang when it hit the floor.
The Ringbearer was stunned by the power displayed. She finally said, "I'd say you have an affinity for quintessence."
Daria was equally as stunned. "I did that?"
The Ringbearer unsteadily rose and went to the ring, picking it up and placing it in a small box that had a green glow inside. "These rings are very dangerous. I know that you're angry, but please let me have the one you took so that it can be destroyed."
Daria asked, "What is going on? Is there some kind of Ringbearer Civil War?"
"Not exactly. We don't know where the Ringwraiths are coming from, but we believe that they have somehow corrupted Defender Rings. They call them Vengeance Rings."
Daria looked at hers. "Vengeance. I like that."
"Do you have a name?"
"Huh? Oh, Daria."
"I'm Jill. I can help ease your pain."
"Don't even try," Daria warned. "I'm going after them and I don't want to forget why."
"Do you want to help fight them?"
"I can duplicate mine for you. Then you can give me yours." Jill held up her golden ring and willed it to make a new Defender Ring.
When Jill cocked her head, Daria asked, "What's wrong?"
"My ring won't do it. I'm sorry, but...how do I put this? You're...too attuned to the Vengeance Ring and not to a Defender Ring."
"Then I'm keeping mine."
Noticing people starting to crawl out from under cover, Jill threw a glamour up around her and Daria so that they would be unnoticed. "Daria, those rings are dangerous. Please. I know you're hurting, but..."
Daria cut her off, saying, "I'm going to fight them. You can let me help you, or I'll do it on my own."
Jill sighed and said, "We'd better take this up with the bosses."
Nova Valdris: Universe D-674. 35 months ago.
Elder Ringbearer Henry Vance was a tall man with light brown skin that gave the impression of restrained power and control in his blue uniform. Beside him, Jill Hanson looked through an observation glass at Daria in the adjoining waiting room. The defiant woman that Jill had brought to Nova Valdris was curled up on a chair and nearly asleep. The only motion was the occasional weak sob that still escaped.
Henry said, "That's the person you said killed two Ringwraiths?"
"Sir, she was riding on adrenalin. Now that she's had time for the fact that her sister was tortured and killed in front of her eyes to sink in, I think her reaction is understandable."
He sighed. "You should've simply taken the ring from her and been done with it."
"My ring was low on power and I was barely standing. The Vengeance Ring had already activated her inherent telekinesis and her elemental affinity for quintessence. I easily could've lost a fight with her and didn't think it was worth the risk of having her running around enraged at them and us. Besides, you know that since she will show up as a friendly to a Ringwraith's danger sense, she can be very useful."
"I'm fully aware of her operational potential, but I don't like having an active Vengeance Ring running around our headquarters."
"I'll keep an eye on her."
"Yes, you will," Henry firmly said. "She's your project. Either convince her to give up the ring willingly, or at least teach her enough of our ways to help her resist that damn ring's temptation."
"Yes sir, I'll do my best."
"And if she shows the slightest, and I mean the slightest, hint of going over, you will do whatever is needed to secure that ring."
Seated upon a rock on the shoulder of one of the grandest peaks on Nova Valdris, Mt. Thermopylae, Daria asked Jill, "When can I go home? Mom and Dad need to know that I'm still alive, not to mention my best friend, Jane."
Looking out over the forests below, Jill said, "Soon. We're still monitoring your home universe for more Ringwraith activity and we don't want you attracting any unwanted attention from them until you've completed more training."
"I've never been one for formal discipline," Daria said. "But intellectually, I know that I was incredibly lucky with those two Ringwraiths. Can some other Ringbearer stop by and tell them I'm okay?"
"The Corps also has to keep a very low profile. The governments of your home planet want all ring holders to leave and stay away. Quote, 'Keep us out of your dispute,' unquote. I don't think one of us making an appearance will go over very well."
"So everyone thinks that both of us are dead."
"I'm sorry, but that's the best we can do right now. Once things have settled down a bit more, we can sneak in and you can say, 'hi,' to everyone."
Daria nodded and spent several minutes looking over the landscape below before saying, "What about your family?"
"They're a couple hundred miles away." After Daria's odd gaze, Jill said, "I'm a rarity among Ringbearers, a native Nova Valdrin."
"No, they're both civilians. Mom's a teacher and Dad's a paramedic."
"So how did you get recruited?"
"It may sound geeky, but I looked into it during my high school career day and when the visiting Ringbearer determined I was a good candidate, things happened from there."
"I bet your principal made a big deal out of it."
"Oh, jeez," Jill said. "'Big deal' doesn't begin to describe it."
"I think it's in every principal's contract."
"I can see it. A lot of kids on Nova Valdris dream of becoming Ringbearers and I'm the only one from my hometown who's ever become one. It is something to be proud of."
"All I got from my high school principal was a statue." Daria rose and brushed the dust from the seat of her jumpsuit. "Okay. Let's get back to work."
Once again noticing other Ringbearers giving them a wide berth as they walked down a corridor of the guest quarters, Daria pointedly asked, "Why don't we just go back in time and stop this whole pile of crap at the beginning?"
Jill sighed. "Putting people or even worlds in 'temporal stasis' while we fix things is far easier than altering time itself, and even that's complicated. Altering time is something we do reluctantly, and only after a problem has been settled and we realize that the results are unacceptable."
"I think the millions already dead because of the Ringwraiths are pretty unacceptable."
"There's also a second problem. If we do a reset without dealing with them first, our relative time, then any of them in between universes or traveling in time or even in a sufficiently separated universe will be unaffected. Odds are, any survivors will try to undo the reset, and trust me, nobody wants a time war. The results are bad, really bad. Plus, without a link to their home reality, the remaining Ringwraiths would be harder to track. So no, we have to deal with the Ringwraiths first, and then, maybe, we can travel back in time to prevent them from being created."
"Damn. I should've known it wouldn't be that easy."
Nova Valdris: Universe D-674. 31 months ago.
On the rim of a desert valley, Jill appreciatively watched as Daria successfully defended a group of "innocent civilian" mannequins from the efforts of her old friend, Danielle. She was especially happy that Daria had a knack for creativity and efficiency in using her ring's abilities, such as slanting shields to deflect instead of brute force stop, or creating novel ways to interfere and disrupt attacks, like creating a cloud of reflective dust to scatter a laser. Seeing Danielle move to an agreed location, Jill touched a switch on the small control box she held in her hand.
In the valley, Daria saw Danielle move behind cover and prepared to shift her position to protect what she insisted on calling crash test dummies. Her alert sense went off, indicating real danger that made Daria spin and drop. The remote weapon locked on and fired a magnetically contained blast of high-energy plasma at Daria. In the split second she had to act, Daria created a black panel between her and the weapon.
Jill watched the bolt splash against the panel, turning it white hot but failing to break through. She stood and called down to the others, "Exercise complete."
Daria looked up and said, "That thing could've done a lot of damage. I thought this was a training exercise!"
Danielle said, "You never know when you might be surprised. Good reaction time, by the way."
Jill flew down and stopped at the still glowing hot panel. "What is it?"
"It's the stuff they put on the underside of a space shuttle, only I made it a lot thicker."
"Good thinking, Daria, and congratulations."
"Oh goody," Daria said, "I passed another assignment."
"No, you've completed your training," Jill said. "I'm going to recommend you for active duty."
Earth: Universe D-899. 31 months ago.
Daria stood on the corner and looked down the road at the familiar red brick house, covered in a light blanket of snow. She said, "I suppose it would be proper to ring the doorbell. I really wish we could've gone back to right after the attack."
Jill said, "I know, but we know a time jump could easily attract Ringwraith attention, and we don't need any more fights on this Earth. We still hope to renegotiate permission to operate from here."
"It's going to be hard on Mom and Dad. They think I've been dead for the last two months."
"Think of it as giving them a nice Christmas present."
Daria turned away and wiped her eyes. "It looks like Dad hasn't even tried to put up decorations. Let's go."
At the door, Jill rang the bell while Daria waited behind her. After several moments, Helen opened the door. "Yes?"
"Good afternoon, my name is Jill Hanson. Please pardon the suddenness of this, but I have some good news for you."
Annoyed, Helen said, "And that would be?"
Daria stepped out from behind Jill. "I'm still alive, Mom."
Helen gasped and fell back. "It can't be."
Daria hurried forward and grabbed her mother before she fell to the ground. "It's me. I'm alive."
"Oh, sweetie." Helen grabbed Daria and held her tightly. "How? They said the part of the mall you were in was totally destroyed by those fighting Ringbearers."
"Jill saved my life," Daria said, using the overall truth but leaving out the remaining details.
"Quinn?" Helen said, hopeful."
Daria looked down. "I'm sorry."
Helen was continued to hold Daria. "At least you've come back to me."
Hearing the noise, Jake came out of the kitchen and stopped. "Daria?"
"It's me, Dad," she said, easing Helen's arms away in anticipation of what was to come.
Crying with joy, he ran forward and grabbed Daria, picking her up and spinning around. "Kiddo!"
After more tears and hugs, Helen made coffee and joined the others as they sat down at the dining table. Recovered a bit, she asked, "Where have you been all this time?"
"Jill's a Ringbearer," Daria said. "I've been with them since the attack."
"What!" Helen said, jostling her coffee and spilling some. "They killed Quinn!"
"No, Mom, they didn't."
Daria faced Helen squarely. "I was there. I saw Quinn die. It was a Ringwraith that killed her, not a Ringbearer."
"They're the same damn thing," Helen said. "Just fighting some kind of war and using us as their battleground." Angrily, she faced Jill. "Get the hell away from my daughter! You've killed one and you won't kill the other!"
Remaining calm, Jill said, "Mrs. Morgendorffer, I'm sorry. I tried everything I could to save Quinn. I would've been killed myself if Daria hadn't saved me."
Crying, Helen said, "Then why don't you fight your war somewhere else and leave us alone?"
"Because the Ringwraiths didn't give us a choice when they attacked innocent people here to undermine our position with your leaders."
"Mom, I've joined them," Daria said. "I'm not going to be able to stay, but I'll come back as often as I can."
"What!" Helen turned, not believing what she was hearing.
"I'm fighting with the Ringbearers to avenge Quinn."
"You will do no such thing, young lady!" Helen demanded. "I just got you back and I'm not going to lose you again."
"I've already made the decision."
"Daria, please don't."
"I promised Quinn that I wouldn't rest until the Ringwraiths could no longer hurt anyone else. I'm sorry Mom, but it's something I have to do.
"Then I have lost you, too."
"You haven't lost me. I'll be back whenever I can."
"I, I just can't face..." Helen covered her face with her hand and retreated from the kitchen and then up the stairs.
Everyone else stood, but when Daria started to follow, Jake placed a hand on her shoulder. "I'll try to talk to your mother. I think all of this has been a lot for her to take.
Hurt, but understanding, Daria said, "Okay."
"How long are you going to stay?"
"Not long, we don't want to attract attention."
"Then this would probably be a good time for you to go. Be careful out there."
"I will. Goodbye, Dad. I love you."
"I love you, kiddo," he said, grabbing her in another hug.
"Tell Mom I love her, too."
After she let go of her father, Daria said, "I'll stop by whenever I can to let you know how I'm doing."
Jake said, "I'll keep an eye open for you."
Jane sat on her bed and looked at Daria seated on the other end of it. "So how often will you be back?"
"I don't know," Daria said. "With the government's opposition to us, I have to be careful. After all, I'm officially dead and walking around would set off a few alarm bells."
"So only takeout pizza, and I have to open the door the delivery guy arrives."
Determined, Jane said, "Can I join you?"
"What?" Daria asked, surprised.
"Join you. Become a Ringbearer Auxiliary or whatever."
"Jane, what I'm doing is going to be really dangerous."
Jane leaned forward. "These Ringwraiths can come back any time, right?"
"I think I'll feel safer around a bunch of people that can fight them than around a bunch who don't stand a chance."
Daria shook her head. "Here, you might be attacked. If you go with us, you will be attacked."
Seated on the chair and quiet up to this point, Jill said, "There is something I can do for you, Jane."
"I can transfer some Ring abilities to you."
"Like your healing power?"
"That was the first one I thought about. But you'll have to be very, very careful and not use them openly."
Daria said, "I think you should add force shields and the communication ability. That way, she can call for help if Ringwraiths attack here."
"So?" Jill asked.
"Do it," Jane replied.
Nova Valdris: Universe D-247. 27 months ago.
Henry nodded to the two women and said, "Permission granted. Just be careful about being detected, the negotiations with your home Earth are improving, but still touchy."
"I'll be careful," Daria said.
Daria and Jill filed out of Henry's office. A short way down the hallway, Jill said, "I think you can do this one solo. I want to spend time with my folks."
"You mean they finally trust me to be on my own?"
Jill said, "Yeah. Henry's a little worried that you enjoy your work too much, but overall, they're satisfied that you're on our side."
Daria rubbed her thumb over her ring. "I'm not going to stop until this is the last ring and I destroy it."
"You know, if anyone can do that, I think it's you."
Earth: Universe D-899. 27 months ago.
At the main entrance to the women's dorm at Boston Fine Arts College, Daria accepted the good natured hug as Jane said, "Take care of yourself out there, killer." When Jane saw Daria's eyes turn down, she said, "Damn, sorry."
"It's not your fault that it's true," Daria said.
A girl with blue-dyed hair stood near them. "Hey, it was cool meeting you. Don't worry; I can keep my mouth shut."
"Thanks." To Jane, Daria said, "You take care of yourself, too. And...you know."
"Don't worry," Jane said. "I talk to your Mom and Dad more often than I talk to mine."
After several more goodbyes, Daria finally left and started walking toward her old home.
Along the way, Daria thought about how she was pleased that Jane was doing well at BFAC, though a little jealous of her roommate. The two were planning on saving money by staying in Lawndale over the upcoming summer instead of paying the high rent in Boston. Jane deserves a best friend who will be around, Daria thought as she walked along the sidewalk, hidden by a glamour. I'm off trying to save the universe while she's stuck trying to make ends meet and keep her head above water in college.
There is something I can do. Daria changed course and went to the college library where she sat down in front of a computer. She brought up an innocuous news website and seemed to study it intently. Using only a tiny thread of quintessence, Daria felt out through the Internet, searching until she found access to the servers of a special bank in Switzerland with accounts of rather dubious heritage. Then, through a complex series of electronic transactions, she moved a small proportion of that money to a newly created arts endowment. From there, she sent an electronic award letter and schedule of funds transfers to BFAC. Jane would never need to worry about tuition again.
Satisfied, Daria left the library and went to an isolated corner of campus. From there, she shadow-walked to her parents' home in Lawndale, where she went around back and gently tapped on the sliding glass door near the dining table when she saw her father.
In almost one motion, he slid the door open and grabbed her into a hug. "Kiddo!"
Daria returned the hug and said, "Hi, Dad, I'm glad to see you."
Reacting to her uncharacteristic response, Jake said, "Are you okay?"
Daria released him and said, "For now, but...I'm going on a very dangerous mission soon. I wanted to see everyone."
Jake nodded and then closed the door. "Thanks, Daria. Your mother and I love you."
Daria nodded in acceptance and asked, "Where's Mom?"
"I really need to talk to her."
"She wants to talk to you, too."
"Thanks." Daria carefully went upstairs and stopped at the open door to her parents' room. Her mother was inside, casually dressed and hanging her work clothes in the closet. Daria said, "Hi, Mom."
Like she'd been struck, Helen turned around. "Daria?"
Daria nodded and stepped forward. "I've missed you."
Helen ran to Daria and, crying, grabbed her. "I missed you, sweetie."
Daria put her arms around her mother in wonder that none of the harshness of their last visit was in evidence.
After a long cry, Helen wiped her face and said, "I'm sorry, Daria. I didn't want to drive you away. I wanted you to stay and never leave."
"I understand, Mom."
"I don't want to face losing you, too."
"I know." Daria looked into her mother's face. "Can you please understand why I have to do this?"
Helen nodded. "I understand, but that doesn't mean I won't worry."
Helen straightened up and said, "You're about to do something very dangerous, aren't you?"
"I plan on it."
Fighting back tears again, Helen said, "Do you have time to stay for dinner?"
"I'll make time."
Nova Valdris: Universe D-247. Present day.
Ringbearer Jane Lane walked with Archangel toward an isolated section of Nova Valdris' detention area. A confident woman of 24, she thought about the different incarnations of the teenage girl she'd met years ago. "I don't get it; we've never encountered a version of Daria that could carry a ring."
"We've never met a version that could carry a Defender Ring," Archangel corrected.
"And what the hell is this Vengeance Ring?"
"A corrupted version of our Defender Rings."
"I thought that wasn't possible."
"It shouldn't be."
"We've encountered several of these rings before and suspect that they are from an alternate of the Ringmaster's home world."
"Don't the Ringmasters know?"
"If they do, they've never said anything."
"Their secrecy gets annoying at times."
"Tell me about it," Archangel grumbled.
Walking past a guard, Jane said, "You don't think this will really hold her if she wants to get out, do you?"
"Not a chance. But, we have plenty of other safeguards in place and it keeps her away from anything sensitive in the mean time."
When they approached the observation window, they saw Daria quietly sitting on a chair, reading. She looked up and over at them with clear concern on her face.
"That's odd," Archangel said. "She's never responded like that before."
"Do you still want me to go in?"
He nodded and Jane went to the door, opening it and going into the holding room. Daria stood and seemed to prepare for an attack. Jane held up her hands and said, "Hey, Daria."
Slowly backing, Daria said, "Jane, how did you get that ring."
"It's an interesting story."
"I bet," Daria said. She looked closely at Jane and said, "Wait, that's not...Oh damn, that's the difference."
"Between your Corps of Ringbearers and mine. You still have the First Ring on your side."
Jane stepped back. "How do you know I have the First Ring? What do you mean, 'on our side?'"
"I'm the only living person on our side that's been close to it from my reality and your Ring feels very much the same. To answer your second question, yours never became the Dominator Ring."
"Dominator Ring. The bane and eventual destruction of my Ringbearers. The creator of the Vengeance Rings."
"Which brings me to my next question," Jane said. "What are you doing wearing one of these Vengeance Rings?"
"Does the Daria you know have a sister named Quinn?"
"Yeah. They used to get on each others nerves like only siblings can, but they've grown closer."
Daria held up her ring and focused on it. "We never had a chance to grow closer. A Ringwraith killed my Quinn. I took this ring from his hand before he died."
"So despite having one of their rings, you don't work for them."
Daria took the small box from her belt and opened it. Within the green glow inside were several rings. "I kill them."
Jane felt a pulse of nausea from looking at the collection of Vengeance Rings. "You can understand our concern about you?"
"It's not the first time I've dealt with it."
"Then you must realize that you're going to be a little hard to fit in with us. No offense, but..."
"I'm not Ringbearer material, I know. But in the end, that's why I was able to work with my Ringbearers. I could do things that they couldn't. I could get my hands dirty."
"We don't work like that."
"Jane, I'm not asking you to. My goal is to bring down the Ringwraiths. If they don't know about you, then good. I'll go out and work on my own."
Jane decided she was worth the risk. "They probably know about us and we think that they have been spying."
Daria shook her head. "Then you will be attacked if you don't take them out first."
"We can't just attack them unprovoked."
Daria grasped Jane's arms. "They've already killed billions in destroying my Ringbearers. My Earth is gone - literally. How much more provocation do you need?"
Jane stepped back. "We'll have to get back to you."
"Jane, this is our best shot. My Ringbearers lost the war, but the cost to the Ringwraiths was very high." Taking a risk, Daria said, "I killed at least a hundred of them, along with their metahuman allies when I blew up my home Earth."
"You blew up your Earth?"
Daria looked at the floor. "Everyone was dead. Mom, Dad, my Jane, Trent... Lawndale was our last stand. We were overwhelmed trying to get to the Architects' Portal. We'd hidden them after the fall of Nova Valdris as emergency escapes for those we couldn't portal away on our own."
Alarmed, Jane said, "Those things can be tracked! They know the location of our Nova Valdris."
"I doubt it. No living Ringwraiths were near me when I went through the portal and the planet detonated as soon as I left. As far as they know, I killed myself to avoid capture."
Jane nodded. "Okay, but we're going to be on guard. You said, 'after the fall of Nova Valdris.'" How did that happen?"
"The Ringwraiths switched from hit and run terrorist attacks designed to undermine the Ringbearers to a full-scale surprise attack. Nova Valdris was the main target of the first wave. We lost half the Corps in one hit."
"Half?" Jane said, incredulous. "Were you there?"
"No, I was on a deep infiltration mission."
"To the Dominator's home base on Earth D-1001."
Earth: Universe D-1001. 12 months ago.
Walking down a well-lit corridor, Daria made no apparent effort to hide. On the surface, this Earth looked like a high-tech wonderland and not the dark home base of an evil overlord. Behind the appearance was a world of surveillance and brutal enforcement. Fear was a tool that had become an integral part of life for the residents. Using her affinity for quintessence, she was able to reach out and subtly take control of the numerous surveillance devices along her way, conveniently pointing them away or sending back 'normal' signals.
Up ahead was Daria's target, a data-handling node for the massive headquarters complex of the Ringwraiths. Much like on Nova Valdris, most of the support staff members were ordinary humans. The ring on her finger was like a universal pass; the staff simply let her go where she wished. The occasional Ringwraith didn't give her a second thought; she was simply one of them. However, Daria was worried about the seemingly low numbers of Ringwraiths and metahumans on base. The information she'd collected so far had indicated that they were in preparation for some big operation, as Henry had feared. She hoped to tap into their data network and get the details before heading back to Nova Valdris.
Through her ring, Daria felt a presence behind her that disturbed her to the core; the Dominator. A moment later, an oddly soft voice said, "Welcome, Daria Wraithkiller."
She turned and faced the slender man standing down the corridor, who said, "One hundred and eventy-eight of my creations lost to your anger. No Ringbearer comes close to your record."
His presence amplified the temptation that always gnawed at the back of Daria's mind. The Vengeance Ring always whispered to the darker corners of her mind, trying to tease the black thoughts out. Now, the whisper was a steady drone.
Mentally, Daria lashed out and forced the drone back, keeping control of her own mind. "It won't work. I suspect I'll be dead in a few minutes, but you won't turn me."
"You will not die today, but you have a choice to make."
Deeply suspicious, Daria said, "Choice?"
"I'll let you hear the calls that I've been blocking."
Instantly, two clear interdimensional calls for help hit her.
The Dominator smiled and said, "Do you go to the defense of Nova Valdris, or to save your family?"
Earth: Universe D-899. 12 months ago.
Four Ringwraiths flew over the flickering, silver bubble protecting the Morgendorffer home. Everything else in the neighborhood was already in ruin, either from the Ringwraith attack or the failed National Guard assault, evidenced by the smashed vehicles and weapons.
Daria and the Ringwraiths could sense that Jane's force field was fading. The Ringwraiths threw attack after attack at it. Fire, earth, water, wind, element after element slammed against the shield. With each attack, it faltered and shrunk as the young woman inside tired.
Daria suppressed all emotion as she flew down to the top of the bubble. There, surrounded by Ringwraiths that assumed she was there to assist, Daria let her emotions go.
The military observers awaiting reinforcements initially thought a small nuclear device had been detonated. The bright flash of quintessence temporarily blinded anyone looking that direction and burned out numerous sensors and cameras. When they looked again, the silver bubble was gone and a damaged red-brick house stood where it had been, with a slender woman with auburn hair running in the door.
"Jane!" Daria called as soon as she opened the door.
"Over here," Helen said, waving from near the couch. Jane had collapsed onto the floor and Jake was trying to help her up onto one of the sofas while Jane's roommate stood nearby in shock.
Daria knelt down and placed her hands on Jane's chest. A blue glow spread over Jane and after a couple seconds, faded. Jane groggily opened her eyes. "Huh?"
"I'm here," Daria said.
"I did the best I could," Jane said.
Daria quickly hugged her parents and then Jane "What you did was wonderful. I'm sorry it took me so long."
Helen said, "Jane saved our lives. Those...things...wanted you."
"Does Jane have one of those ring things?" Jake asked.
"Only a couple of its powers, for emergencies," Daria said. The distress call from Nova Valdris still rang in her head, so she reluctantly stood. "I have to go; things are bad."
A group of soldiers kicked open the door and one yelled, "U.S. Army! We're here to help."
Jane said, "You're a little late."
Daria stepped forward. "Everyone here is fine. You'd better check the area for anyone else who may have been harmed."
The leader of the group listened to his radio and then raised his weapon at Daria. "Please come with me."
She said, "I'm sorry, but I have pressing business elsewhere."
"That wasn't a request," the man said.
Daria walked up until the tip of his barrel was inches from her forehead. "I just killed four Ringwraiths out there. If you couldn't stop them, do you really think you can stop me?"
The officer wavered. "Um..."
Daria lifted her hand and moved the barrel aside. "I need to go. Tell your government that things may get worse. The Ringbearers are under attack and I honestly don't know the overall situation. We may or may not be able to quickly respond in the future."
The officer said, "I'll pass that on."
"Good," Daria said. "Now, please..."
She stepped back and opened a portal, though very worried that she could no longer detect Terra Beacon One on Nova Valdris.
Nova Valdris: Universe D-674. 12 months ago.
The paving stones of the Plaza were glazed with glass from the furious energies that had been expended in defense of Terra Beacon One. All around, not a building was left standing. Other recently returned Ringbearers wandered around in a daze at the destruction. Daria felt their deep distrust as she searched for any that she had known.
Everyone stopped when they heard the broadcast message, "This is Elder Henry Vance. All Ringbearers are to assemble at the Terra Beacon One Plaza immediately. I repeat; All Ringbearers are to assemble at the Terra Beacon One Plaza immediately."
Over the next half hour, Ringbearers appeared, either on foot or shadow-walking from other parts of the planet. Among the newcomers was one friendly face. Daria went to her and said, "Jill, you're alive."
"Barely," she said. "I was with Henry when we forced our way through and destroyed the beacon."
"You destroyed it?" Daria said in disbelief.
"It had become a trap. The Ringwraiths were hitting returning Ringbearers as they portaled in one or two at a time. We didn't have enough to take them out, but we could take out the beacon and stop the slaughter. After that, we gathered everyone we could at Luna Nova and launched a counterattack. In all honesty, we didn't drive them away; they withdrew in a preplanned fashion."
Henry walked to the edge of the plaza and loudly said, "Your attention, please. Today, we face a crisis of unprecedented magnitude. The Ringwraiths launched a surprise attack, first blanketing Nova Valdris in darkness to prevent our rings from recharging. Using overwhelming numbers, they destroyed the base and its defenders while shuttling forces in and out of the darkness to recharge their rings. We don't have a good accounting of our casualties yet, but it is assuredly in the thousands, with hundreds of rings missing and presumed captured. We can expect further attacks and the Ringmasters are currently analyzing the situation to develop an effective response."
Daria said what others were afraid to utter. "They don't know what to do."
"Daria!" Jill exclaimed.
Daria spoke louder. "We've been losing this war for months. We're stretched so thin that we're sent on missions alone and without backup. But each time we encounter Ringwraiths, we're outnumbered. They've been more successful at recruiting and now that they've successfully crippled the Corps, they can virtually do what they want. We, on the other hand, have only two choices. To make a doomed retreat or to strike at the heart of their power."
A Ringbearer in the crowd said, "We can't attack them. It would be suicide."
"So is retreating. The only difference is that attacking has a slim chance for success while retreating has none."
Nova Valdris: Universe D-247. Present day.
Seated on the conference table, Jane whistled and looked up at the observation window. "That's a hell of a story."
Daria looked at the mirrored window and said, "Who's watching?"
"Archangel. Was he one of the bigwigs in your Corps?"
"Never met anyone by that name," Daria said. To the window, she then said, "You can come on in. I don't bite."
Under his breath, he muttered, "Damn Morgendorffer sarcasm," before going around the corner and into the room. "I'm Archangel."
Daria politely nodded and said, "I'm sure that there's a reason for the cane. Even I cured my eyesight when I realized how much of a hindrance my glasses were in combat."
He nodded in return and took another seat at the table. "There's a reason for everything. I have the feeling that your Ringmasters chose a rearguard action instead of an attack. Do you know why?"
"They said they needed us to buy time while they developed a solution to the Dominator Ring. What that solution was, we'll never know. One day, we simply stopped hearing from them. I was sent to investigate and...Earth D-674 was gone with only an asteroid belt forming where it had been. I know that they didn't go down without a fight and it didn't stop with the destruction of that Earth. I found hundreds upon hundreds of bodies amid the planet's remains, most of them Ringwraiths."
"However, they didn't lose enough for you to turn around the retreat."
"We were being hit with fewer numbers and many of them were clearly inexperienced. But in the end, that only prolonged the agony. After Elder Henry died evacuating us from Luna Nova, we made our last stand on my Earth."
Earth: Universe D-899. Five months ago.
Jill and Daria stood in the Oval Office, facing the President. The middle-aged man with graying hair said, "We still have the full might and power of the United States military to defend us. However, we can use you as an independent contractor under the command of the Joint Chiefs of Staff."
"With respect, sir," Jill said. "You need to think beyond national security and think of planetary security. Over two billion have already died in Asia while China and Russia fight independently. If you're to have any, and I mean any, chance of survival, this needs to be an international effort."
"Take it or leave it, Miss Hanson," he said. "But if you leave it, I want all of you out of the country in 24 hours."
Daria stepped forward. "This isn't about the next election or the poll numbers or approval ratings. We're talking about the survival of the human race on this planet. We've hurt the Ringwraiths. We've hurt them badly and if we can create an organized defense, we might be able to drive them back because they can't afford to take many more casualties. But that's only if all of the surviving nations of the world unite."
The President said, "Miss Morgendorffer, in this room, we discuss real politics, not idealism. If we had a year or two, we might be able to negotiate an alliance. But we don't, so we have to go it alone. That's reality."
"That reality will get all of us killed."
"But it's the only option we have."
Jill said, "We'll do everything we can."
Earth: Universe D-899. Three months ago.
Tired beyond belief, Daria slumped on the sofa of her old home and stared at the television. Jill's words still played through her mind. "Daria, go home and get some rest. You've earned it and you need it. No arguments. Come back in 24 hours. I wish it could be more."
On the other sofa was Jane. Since the Ringwraith attack had begun, she'd been at the Morgendorffer home, along with her brother Trent. Her roommate had gone home to be with her father and the whereabouts of the rest of Jane's family was not known. She pointed at the TV and said, "I have a whole season of Sick, Sad World recorded. How's that sound?"
"Wonderful," Daria said. "It's been a long time."
The campy show brought long displaced memories of her days in high school and the lazy summer after. For the first time in as long as she could remember, Daria actually was able to relax and, from time to time, laugh.
Her laugh was cut short when she felt that something very terrible was about to happen. She reached to her friend and said, "Jane..."
There was a flash below the horizon that Daria saw through the large corner windows of the living room. "Dammit!" She threw a shield up around Lawndale and waited.
Jane said, "What's going on?"
"Some asshole just nuked Baltimore. Dammit, we told the military brass that nukes would not be effective and would only kill civilians. What the hell is wrong with them?"
"Nukes?" Jane said in shock. "I knew things were bad, but..."
Daria became furious. "Someone has gone absolutely stupid." After waiting for the shockwave to pass, she said, "Jane, keep up a shield around Lawndale as long as you can. I'm going to Washington and will be back as soon as I've fried someone's ass."
Frightened, Jane nodded and said, "Hurry back."
Daria shadow-walked to the Joint Chief's War Room in the Pentagon. She looked around at the staff and officers frantically hurrying to clear the room and asked, "Where's Jill Hanson?"
One of the generals said, "Ms. Morgendorffer, we lost contact with her. She may have been in Nashville when that bomb detonated. We're preparing to move to Looking Glass."
"Nashville?" Daria said, stifling the pain she felt about Jill's death. "How many bombs went off?"
"One hundred and fifty. The Ringwraiths attacked immediately afterwards."
"Who the hell gave the order?" Daria yelled.
"Only the President has the nuclear codes."
Daria shadow-walked to the White House. Moments before she re-entered reality, she knew a Ringwraith was inside the Oval Office and that told her exactly what had happened.
He's good, Daria thought as she re-entered reality behind him and sensed the force field around his body tuned to protect from the alchemical elements a Ringbearer would wield. But still too arrogant. She drew a plastic knife from a leg sheath. In one smooth motion, it slipped effortlessly through the shield and into his heart. The quintessence she channeled through the blade melted it and destroyed his internal organs.
The Secret Service guards had their weapons drawn on Daria by the time the man they thought was the President slumped and his image flickered before becoming a completely different man who fell against the desk.
Daria held up her hands and said, "You can bet the real President is already dead. This Ringwraith just ordered the destruction of 150 American cities."
The agents moved forward, weapons still drawn. "Hands on your head," one ordered.
Daria did as directed and then said, "Look on his hand. The ring on his finger looks like mine. I don't think the President would wear a tarnished ring."
The lead agent picked up the corpse's hand and confirmed the presence of a ring. When he moved to remove it, Daria said, "Don't. Allow me."
The agent stepped back and said, "Okay, but slowly."
Daria opened the stasis box on her belt and used telekinesis to move the ring into the box. She then closed it and said, "We need to tell the Vice-President. Assuming he hasn't been replaced, too."
Earth: Universe D-899. 2 days ago.
Feeling the weight of leadership, Daria stared at the maps spread before her on a table in the gymnasium of Lawndale High School, now the final command post. The nuclear strikes followed by concentrated Ringwraith and metahuman attacks had been well planned, killing most of the surviving Ringbearers on Earth and crippling what was left of the military. Angered by the resistance they faced after what they thought would be capitulation, the Ringwraiths had destroyed everything before them. Nothing living remained after they'd cleared an area. No animal, plant, nor microbe.
Even with regular shielding by the few remaining Ringbearers, most of Lawndale had been destroyed. The continual darkness the Ringwraiths maintained around the city had weakened all of them and wore on the morale of the civilian survivors. Daria made her choice. She would use the hidden Architect's portal to get as many survivors as possible away before she destroyed the planet and took as many Ringwraiths as possible with it. With any luck, the portal would send them to some universe that had never heard of Ringwraiths or Ringbearers. Some place that they could rebuild in peace.
She looked at those gathered. Less than fifty people remained. "Jane, do you think you can still find the Good Time Chinese restaurant?"
"Yes," she answered.
"Keep everyone shielded and take them to where I showed you the Architect's Portal was hidden."
"How do you know it's there?" someone in the crowd asked.
"The Ringbearers have known about them for some time and hid them away from prying eyes. They used technology based means so that Ringwraiths couldn't easily see through the disguise like they could with a Ring-based one. We've used them before to arrange escapes when needed, but they can usually be traced. This time, I'll make sure it can't be traced."
"Are you sure?"
"No, but it's the best I can do. Otherwise, we'll all die here."
The crowd mumbled agreement and everyone started to pick up their few belongings.
In the crowd, Daria sought out her parents, giving each a tight embrace and saying, "I love you."
Next, she gave Trent a close hug, saying, "Don't fall asleep on me this time."
"You're still the coolest high schooler I know."
Last, Daria went to Jane and held her close for many long seconds. They parted without uttering a word to each other, but saying volumes.
As the civilians prepared, Daria went to the five remaining Ringbearers. "Our job is to give them time to reach the portal and then get them through. We've lost the war. Our only duty now is to get these few innocents away. Nothing else matters."
"Yes, ma'am," they said.
Daria took a deep breath and prepared to move out. I'll never give up, Quinn.
"Incoming!" one of the patrolling Ringbearers yelled as he saw a formation of Ringwraiths diving down on the fleeing civilians. The Ringbearers rose in defense and soon the sky was ablaze with fire and lightning.
Daria swung her arm toward their destination, yelling at Jane and the others, "Run and don't stop! Jane, do what I told you to find the portal and take them through."
"What about you?" Jane called back.
"We'll catch up if we can."
Five Ringwraiths singled Daria out and simultaneously hit her with different attacks or brought up barricades to restrict her movement. Daria struck back with lightning and telekinetically hurled debris from the town. She wove between the barricades, turning the tables and using them for her own defense. Daria turned air to sulfur powder and ignited it with a blast of fire to disorient one Ringwraith while she drew up earth around her, trapping and crushing her.
The next, Daria drew into a chase. Once out of sight, she laid a thread of monomolecular diamond across his path and then stood her ground as bait. The Ringwraith fell into two neat slices as the thread cut through him.
Number three died when Daria created a conical force field in front of him that reflected his telekinetic blast back and focused it on his head, shattering it.
Daria hurled a quintessence blast at the fourth attacker a split second after opening a portal behind him. The blast sent him through and somewhere into the sun.
A powerful hit between her shoulder blades pushed Daria face-first into the street. Instead of trying to rise, she opened the earth to drop her below street level and the fifth Ringwraith's volley of needle-like projectiles. Daria created a nanoscopic force field sphere and filled it with air. Keeping behind cover of the earthen pit, she telekinetically moved the sphere up to the Ringwraith and gave a feral grin when he unknowingly inhaled it. She released the shield and was rewarded to see the Ringwraith stop and then fall to the ground with bright red foam coming from his nose and mouth.
"Daria! Help!" Jane called using her metahuman gift of communication. "I'm losing it."
Daria flew up and back toward the others. She couldn't see any of the other Ringbearers and knew that they were dead. Three Ringwraiths had surrounded the civilians and made repeated attack runs. Jane's shield barely covered them and was quickly diming. Even as Daria started to fly as fast as she could to them, Jane's shield vanished and they were engulfed in a wave of fire.
"No!" Daria cried.
The Vengeance Rings preyed upon the slights suffered by and the fears of the wielder. The rings coaxed out the need for vengeance upon those that the wearer felt had wronged them. This built upon their petty anger and frustration, making them a pliable tool for the Dominator. For Daria, it gave her the will to fight when others could not. The need for righteous revenge fueled her will to frightful levels. The Ringwraiths that killed the last of those Daria loved learned just how frightful this will for vengeance could be.
"You killed with fire. You'll die by water," Daria said, her voice terrifyingly devoid of emotion. She telekinetically grabbed each one and slammed them face down to the ground; the force of her will completely overwhelming theirs as they unsuccessfully tried to fight against her.
She then created water to flood the street around them. "Don't expect your ring's elemental protection to save you," she said. "When you no longer have a ring."
Savagely, she telekinetically yanked the ring finger off of each Ringwraith. Instantly, they began to struggle against the hold Daria had on them. After a minute, their struggles slowed, and by the end of two, had ceased.
Daria collected the rings and placed them in her stasis box, leaving the severed fingers on the ground.
Stone faced, she went to where her family had died. Daria dropped down onto her knees and stared at the unidentifiable remains before her. Exhaustion, grief, anger and despair fought for control of her face as she continued to look, though no sound escaped her lips. Only by a great effort, Daria stood and hoarsely whispered, "Mom, Dad, Jane. Goodbye, I love you. I'm sorry I couldn't save you. Now, I only have my promise to Quinn and to keep it, I have to stay alive."
Feeling weak from the expenditure of will to defeat the Ringwraiths and wanting to stay out of sight, Daria chose to go on foot to the Architect's Portal. Where she would go from there, she didn't know.
Nova Valdris: Universe D-247. Present day.
"Whoa," Jane said after hearing Daria's story. "I can't imagine..."
"Don't try," Daria said. "Nobody deserves to even think about it."
Archangel steepled his fingers and watched Daria. "You said that the Ringwraiths had taken heavy casualties. How heavy?"
"We were consistently killing at least three for every Ringbearer that died. Less than honorable people are easier to find, so they could recruit much faster, but by the end, their lack of training was telling. If your Corps hasn't been devastated like mine, you should be able to completely overwhelm them."
"Considering the past actions of the scouts we've encountered before, it's my opinion that the Ringwraiths represent a grave threat that should be addressed quickly."
Jane said, "I know you've always been cynical, but I have a hard time believing that they could find that many evil people to make into Ringwraiths."
"They don't have to be evil," Daria said. "Just not quite as honorable as a Ringbearer. The rings prey upon their wearer's weaknesses and turn them. That's the biggest part of their evil. Plus, too many have been from worlds that have known only the Ringwraiths for decades or centuries and have only heard their propaganda. They enlist thinking that they are doing the right thing and then realize too late that they're lost."
"Then what about you, Daria? Why haven't you gone bad?"
Daria dropped her head and focused on the table. "I have."
Archangel said, "She has let her darker side out. The only difference is that she'd directed it at the Ringwraiths instead of joining them."
Daria quietly said, "Yes. If we succeed...then you're going to have to figure out what to do with me."
Archangel wasn't surprised to see a visitor waiting in his office when he returned. A brown-haired man in fatigue pants and a gray t-shirt that said, "Bill and Opus: This year, why not the worst?" sat on one of the guest chairs, playing a game on a small, handheld device. Archangel said, "Thanks for coming over, Richard."
"You inviting me to the office says that something big is going on."
Archangel stopped at small bar and unstoppered a square bottle of nectar. He poured the pale amber liquid into one glass and then into one ceramic mug. After placing the glass on his desk, he offered the mug to his guest. "We might need this."
After Richard took the mug, the nectar turned into an aromatic, black coffee. "Thanks."
Archangel sat down and said, "By any chance, has The Agency run into any, um, corrupted Defender Rings?"
Richard lifted an eyebrow. "Corrupted? No. Are you having a problem with the Morality Interlock on your rings?"
"Not ours, yet. We've learned that there's another power in play that just destroyed a parallel Corps of Ringbearers. In that universe, something went wrong with the First Ring and it has the capacity to corrupt other rings. We have good reason to believe that they intend to expand their influence."
Richard whistled. "So that's what you're worried about. What can we do for you?"
"We have two rings for analysis. I think having one of them examined by your people would increase our odds of defeating them."
"How did you get those two?"
"Long negotiations with a tough customer."
Daria, escorted by Jane and another Ringbearer named Robert, found one of the most remote parts of the training range and stopped. She said, "This should be good."
While Daria took the stasis box from her belt, Jane said, "I don't think I've ever seen somebody out negotiate Archangel. He really wanted more than two rings for study."
"I already regret letting him talk me into those two. Unattached rings tend to attract unwanted attention. The only safe thing to do is destroy them and that's what I plan to do with the rest." Daria opened the box and poured the collected rings into a pile. "I suggest that you stand back and protect yourselves."
Jane and Robert immediately took the suggestion, each throwing up a shield.
Palm out, Daria pointed her ringed hand at the pile and closed her eyes, concentrating. The ring on her hand began to glow blue, as well as the pile. The color shifted violet and then to white. At the same time, the intensity seemed to increase.
Robert said, "Damn, that glow is going beyond the visual spectrum."
Jane became worried when she saw Daria's skin begin to turn red. The glow continued to intensify and she cried out, "Daria!"
"Stay back!" she replied. Daria gritted her teeth and continued concentrating quintessence on the rings until they started to crumble. As they fell into dust, Daria directed the stream upward, scattering the molecules to the aether. Done, she fell back on the ground.
Jane and Robert ran up, shocked to see her skin burned and showing signs of radiation poisoning. "Why didn't your ring protect you?"
Daria's eyes flickered open. "It came from my ring. It's never happy about destroying other rings." She gulped and tried to sit up, failing. "I normally have to heal myself after this. Do you mind?"
Jane didn't hesitate to place her hands on Daria's shoulders and let a healing glow cover her friend's body. After a minute, she stopped and sat back. "Done."
Daria sat up and said, "Thanks. That always takes a lot out of me."
Robert shook his head and said, "Stubborn woman, no matter where you're from."
Daria placed her hands on her hips. "What's that supposed to mean?"
Robert asked Jane, "She doesn't know?"
Jane shook her head and then explained, "Archangel wanted two people who knew you well to come out, just in case something happened. Robert is, um, uh, romantically involved with our universe's version of you."
Daria stood and looked at Robert. "Just how 'romantically involved' are you?"
"We love each other," as his simple reply.
Daria went to him and whispered, "Then take care of yourself. For her sake."
Daria sat in her assigned quarters, reading and feeling antsy. A full week had passed since her escape to Nova Valdris. Since the day she'd taken the ring, she'd never had so much time off. The need for the free time was readily apparent, but she still felt anxious to continue on her quest.
The door chime gave Daria a reason to put her book down and stop thinking about things. She pressed a button to open the door and found Robert outside. He said, "Hello."
"Hi. What brings you here?"
"I brought a couple of visitors for you. Archangel agreed that it would be a good idea and pulled a few strings for you to meet them."
"Oh? Who are these visitors?"
"One is my girlfriend."
When her counterpart stepped into view, the war-weary Daria had to pause for a moment to remember when she still had long hair and glasses. The newcomer said, "It was Robert's idea that this was a good chance for me to talk to myself."
Daria could only think to say, "Hi."
Robert took a deep breath and said, "The other is her sister."
The slender redhead stepped forward and shyly waved. "Hi."
Daria stumbled backward. "Quinn?"
She said, "I know that I'm not your real sister, but that Angel guy said it would be good for you to see that I'm all right."
Daria's hand went to her mouth and her eyes glistened. "Quinn."
"Daria?" Quinn said, stepping toward her sister's twin. When she touched the woman's shoulder, Daria wrapped her arms around Quinn and held tight, quietly sobbing.
Feeling very much out of her element, Quinn carefully hugged back and said, "It's okay."
Robert and the other Daria quietly watched and waited.
Daria let go and wiped her face, but stayed very close to Quinn. "I never dared to look to see if you lived in any other universes. I loved my sister and I never told her."
The other Daria whispered to Robert, "Damn, now you know I really care about my sister."
"I always suspected as much."
Quinn said, "I'm sure she knew."
Robert put his arm around Daria and said, "Yep, busted."
Her face dry, Daria ushered the others fully into the room and closed the door. She pulled up chairs for everyone. "Please."
Last, Daria sat down and addressed her other self. "Are you happy?"
"Oddly enough, yes," she answered. "Even if he worries me at times."
Quinn took a chance and said, "See Daria, you will look good with shorter hair and no glasses."
Daria felt the back of her neck and tried to remember when it was covered with long, soft hair. "Even though you approve, it wasn't a fashion choice."
"No offense," Daria said, squeezing her boyfriend's hand, "I don't think Robert will exactly go for the butch look."
"Tell me about your life," Daria said, "What's Lawndale like in a normal world?"
A couple hours later, Daria was preparing to see her guests off. "Robert, thanks. Letting me see myself in another light and giving me the chance to see a version of Quinn was what I needed."
"I've learned a few things about how you Darias think."
"Speaking of which," Daria said to her other self, "If Quinn tells you to buy a red blouse, do it."
Archangel stared across his desk, which was projecting multidimensional maps of Earth D-1001 from the Tactical Information Center. The Ringmasters' Emissary was a woman wearing a delicate robe that seemed to move and shift on its own and by all logic, the sheer fabric should've been virtually transparent, but instead seemed to wrap her in a shimmering gleam that protected all modesty. He finally shook free of his shock and said, "I'm trying to assemble the largest force that we and The Agency have ever attempted for the invasion of Earth D-1001. What do you mean, 'Stand down?'"
The Emissary softly said, "Cease your preparations. War is not the answer to this dilemma."
"With all respect, considering what these Ringwraiths have done and the reports we're getting of their scouting activities, I think that the Council was right to give me clearance to prepare for a pre-emptive strike."
"The Ringmasters have since examined your report on Daria Morgendorffer and the analyses of both of the Vengeance Rings she supplied. The Agency agrees with their decision."
"Then I hope that they have a better plan."
Archangel knew the answer, but asked anyway, "Are you going to tell me?"
"I am not at liberty."
"Then is there anything I can do?"
The woman slowly nodded her head. "Please summon Daria Morgendorffer and Jane Lane. The Ringmasters wish to speak with them."
"As you wish."
Daria met up with Jane in the corridor leading to Archangel's office. Daria said, "I would sometimes joke about making things as complicated as the landing at Normandy. Now, I'm involved in planning the invasion of an entire Earth."
"And I bet you used to say you didn't have any ambition," Jane said.
When they reached the office door, it opened and Archangel said, "Enter."
Jane stopped in surprise at seeing the Emissary standing in the room. She'd heard of them, but had never seen one.
Daria seemed to barely notice anything unusual. She went to the Emissary and said, "What's the plan?"
"I see you're as straightforward as Archangel reported," the Emissary said. "Details will be explained to you by the Ringmasters. I will take you to them."
Earth: Universe D-476. Present day.
The Ringmasters' Council Chambers were simple, tasteful and functional. Wearing clean-lined, deep blue robes, seven men and women sat at a semicircular table set at floor level, with one chair empty at each end. A speaker's podium faced them from in front of several rows of seats that rose stadium-like at the back of the room. On this day, Daria and Jane entered and went to the podium alone.
The man in the middle rose and said, "Welcome, Daria Morgendorffer and Jane Lane." He glanced from side to side at his peers and said, "We're the Ringmasters."
Jane said, "Nice to meet you," while Daria said, "Um, hello."
"I am Raphael, President of the Council. Now that you are here before the entire Council, we can begin discussion of a matter most urgent."
"Entire Council?" Daria said. "Why are two seats empty?"
"They are reminders of two of our greatest who were lost in the line of duty." Raphael looked to the right and said, "One is Miranda, the original wearer of the First Ring," and then to the left, "and the other is Dallen, the genius behind the Rings."
Jane looked at her ring and then felt a connection when she looked at the empty seat. "Wow," she whispered.
Raphael said, "Thanks to what we and The Agency learned about the two rings you provided, Daria, we now have a means to neutralize the threat of the Dominator Ring and his Ringwraiths."
"We're central to that plan," Daria plainly said, stating a fact and not a question.
"Correct. I remembered you as an intelligent woman. Before you ask, we have met you in our past and in your future."
"By 'we,' you mean the Council?"
"So, do I also get to meet you again, um...before?" Jane asked.
"No," Raphael said.
"Now that we've played the 'get to know you' games, what is your plan?" Daria said.
Raphael said, "If the First Ring that Jane carries is brought to within 20 meters of the Dominator Ring, they will completely neutralize each other's abilities."
"I'm not sure that I like this plan," Jane said.
"Daria," Raphael said. "It will be your responsibility to get Jane that close to the Dominator and then to deliver the fatal blow to him."
"What about the other Ringwraiths?" Daria said. "I know that I can pass unnoticed among them, but Jane will stand out like a sore thumb."
"Um, maybe not," Jane said. "My glamour ability is a lot better than other rings. I bet I can mimic a Ringwraith well enough to fool others if I practice a little with you before we go."
"That's interesting," Daria said.
"It's not something that I advertise."
"Okay," Daria said. "Supposing that we kill the Dominator, what about the Ring? Can I destroy it like I can Vengeance Rings?"
"Doubtful," Raphael said.
"Then what do we do?"
Raphael said, "Jane, you'll have to use your glamour to the maximum extent you've ever tried to temporarily take the Dominator's place."
"What?!" she said.
"You will need to recall all Ringwraiths to Earth D-1001. Tell them that they are to prepare for an attack our Nova Valdris."
"What's that supposed to do except make me the biggest red shirt in the Multiverse?"
"It will make sure that all Ringwraiths are in one location and none are in transit between realities when Daria goes back in time and prevents the Dominator Ring from being created."
Daria said, "How am I supposed to do that?"
"You'll go back in time to our past to see the First Ring being created. It will give you insight as to what you will need to do."
"Is that when I met you before?"
After the meeting, Daria and Jane were escorted to a set of adjoining guest quarters with common living/dining areas. After the Emissary left, they sat down at the table.
Daria said, "You look nervous."
"Gee," Jane said. "We're about to head off, just the two of us, to stop one of the biggest badasses in the Multiverse and if we succeed, I have to try to fool his evil minions while you go off and do some twisty-turny time games so that he doesn't exist. Can't imagine why I might be nervous."
"Point taken. I was hoping," Daria said, pausing as if trying to find the words to say, "I was hoping to spend a little while like we were before. Pizza, bad movies and too much soda."
"We can use our rings to whip up some ambrosia and make it pizza."
"I can't even remember when I last ate pizza," Daria admitted.
"Okay, I've used my powers to sample some of the best pizza places on several different Earths. I'll make the pizza."
"Thanks," Daria said. "I miss pizza."
Jane created some ambrosia with her ring and transformed it into a pizza cooked in a stone oven from a little place in a New York City that she'd found several months before. Along with the pizza, she created two cups of soda and some bread sticks. "Dinner is served."
"Thanks," Daria said, taking a slice and savoring the flavor.
Jane said, "I wonder if they have any Sick, Sad World on that big screen display?"
Remembering the last time she'd been able to relax with her Jane, Daria said, "Why don't we skip that and do something else?"
"Uh, okay. Like what?"
"You are getting soft in your old age."
Earth: Universe D-316. 34 months ago.
Hidden by a glamour, Daria and Jane watched from across the street as the Daria and her family on that Earth packed boxes and suitcases into the red SUV. Jake ranted about how the boxes wouldn't fit properly, Quinn complained that she could only take one suitcase and Helen tried to organize things while simultaneously talking on the cell phone. The other Daria had remained calm as she methodically brought down everything she needed for college.
Seeing that the family was almost done, Daria said, "I'm going to get a little closer to hear them."
"Sure thing, Daria."
After Daria crossed the street, Richard appeared next to Jane and said, "Aren't you a little out of your jurisdiction? Not to mention proper time."
Jane momentarily jumped and said, "Don't do that."
He shrugged. "Sorry. So, having a little look at what might have been?"
"Yeah. Daria was only a couple weeks away from this when everything happened to her. She wanted to see for herself that somewhere, things went they way she'd planned."
"Any particular reason you chose this Earth?"
"One of the Roberts told us about it."
Richard chuckled. "Figures."
Curious, Jane said, "What's your take on all this?"
"That tells me a lot."
"It was meant to only tell you what you need."
Jane turned to him. "You're in on this somehow, aren't you?"
"Jane, the more you or Daria know, the more you will second-guess yourselves. Do what comes naturally."
The Daria preparing for college came out of the house and closed the door, locking it. She carried a piece of the gray wall padding from her room, tacked to a sheet of wood. That prompted Jane to say, "If all this works, then I'll never meet Daria with a ring. It feels strange doing a reset on the Corps."
"Dealing with time interventions always feels strange and you never get used to it."
"Won't doing a reset on ourselves create one of those time paradoxes?"
"No, it won't."
Jane carefully scrutinized his face and then said, "Now I know you're involved."
Richard's face remained unchanged while he watched the Morgendorffers climb into the SUV and drive away.
Seeing the direction the truck went, Jane said, "They must be going to my old house."
Daria joined them and said to Richard, "Who invited you?"
"Just dropped by out of curiosity."
"She has a good life here."
Daria looked down the street where the car had gone. "Excuse us; we have a mission to do."
Earth: Universe D-1001. Present day.
Technicians and support personnel moved out of Daria and Jane's way as they traveled down the corridor of the headquarters complex. Jane whispered, "Almost all of these guys are normal people."
"Just like back on Nova Valdris," Daria said. "The Ringbearers could never operate without a massive support staff and the same goes for the Ringwraiths. In all of the fighting where I'm from, millions of these people died on different worlds. That's the price of war."
"Then we better do this right."
"Let's keep going," Daria said, reaching out with quintessence to control the security systems that they encountered. She also scanned the information data systems. "I've found him."
"Cool. Let's go kill his ass."
"Eager to become a dark overlord?"
"Well, I'd prefer to be a dark overlady, but you take what you can get."
"Jane, one bit of news that I gathered from their information system is going to make your job easier."
"He's already recalling Ringwraiths to prepare for a strike."
"Keep your direct interaction to a minimum. He's already a recluse; use that."
"A recluse, huh?"
"Well, when you prepare an evil army, you need to expect someone to have ambitions on taking over."
"So watch your back."
"I'm going to watch my back, front, sides, top and bottom. Do you know anywhere I can buy a few extra eyes?"
"Speaking of eyes," Daria said. "I think your heavy duty invisibility glamour would be a good idea for both of us from here on. We're getting to the point where Ringwraiths will be guards and not as likely to let us walk by without challenge."
Jane shifted her glamour from faux Ringwraith to full invisibility and then extended it to Daria. "Got it."
"And don't forget that the Dominator detected me the last time and knew who I was, so don't be surprised if he shows up."
"Thanks for reminding me," Jane dryly said. "You know how much I like surprises."
"Surprise," Daria said after she used her quintessence affinity to take over a bulkhead door's controls and open it. On the other side was a familiar figure looking directly at them. Again with the unexpectedly soft voice, he said, "Wraithkiller. What an unexpected surprise. Oh, and you've brought a friend. Hello, friend. Has she told you how I've already eliminated one Corps of Ringbearers and will soon do the same to you?"
"She told me about what you've done and we're here to kick your ass," Jane said.
"Really? Just the two of you deep in the heart of my headquarters?"
Daria closed the door and silently put up a force field behind the Dominator as she and Jane stepped closer. "Just the two of us. There's been enough killing."
"You should know, Wraithkiller. How many of my followers have you killed?" When Daria didn't answer, he said, "Or have you lost count?"
"This is the last time I'll have to kill," Daria said. "Then my sister will be avenged."
"Too bad you never fully embraced that feeling," the Dominator said. "You would've become one of my greatest generals."
"With you watching my every move and holding a knife to my throat," Daria said.
"I always have to watch out for petty jealousy."
Jane tried to create a small ball of clay in her hand and found that she couldn't. She nodded to Daria.
The Dominator stepped back and hit the force field that Daria had set up. He tried to shadow walk past it and found he couldn't. However, his voice betrayed no concern when he said, "Oh dear, you seem to have me trapped."
"Now, you die," Daria said, firing a concentrated beam of quintessence at his chest.
It burned away his clothing to reveal gleaming armor underneath. An almost perfectly clear dome formed up around his head and gloves seemed to grow from the ends of his sleeves, leaving him completely encased. "You didn't think that I lived this long by relying only upon my ring, did you?"
"Dammit," Jane said. "What do we do now?"
The Dominator jumped across the room and grabbed Jane, pinning her arms against her chest. Glad that the ring had directly given her the power of telekinesis, Jane brought a shield up in time to prevent her chest from being crushed, but now it was all she could do to fight against his massively boosted strength.
"A classic hostage situation," he said. "Oh, and I've taken care to specifically shield my suit against quintessence being used to override the controls. What do you do now?"
Daria watched him for several seconds while Jane tried to wrestle her way out of his grip. "Dammit, I knew this was sounding too easy."
"Hang in there," Daria said, placing a force field around Jane.
The Dominator said, "Don't you think I know the strength of your ring? Sure, you can keep me from crushing her, until your ring runs low on power down here away from the sunlight. Oh, and you won't be able to force my arms apart, either."
"You've done too much of your evil by proxy and haven't kept up on your enemies," Daria said, her body beginning to glow with quintessence. "I don't like hostage situations and I don't like hostage takers."
He grinned and said, "So, is this where you demand that I let her go?"
"No." The glow around Daria flashed into a bright pulse and with a few sparks and pops, the electronics in the corridor died and the lights went out. Producing a soft glow from her ring, Daria telekinetically pulled the arms of the Dominator's now disabled armor open to allow Jane to escape.
His face betrayed fear and confusion as Daria twisted his arms behind his back. While the Dominator's attention was on his arms, Daria reached inside the clear helmet with her telekinesis and in one fast stroke, broke his neck. When he fell to the ground, she said, "EMP. It's a bitch."
"Okay, that was close," Jane said. "What now?"
Daria knelt down and pulled a glove from the Dominator's hand to reveal his ring. It was silver in color with an infinity symbol on the edge, though like the Vengeance Rings, tarnished. Daria took the ring from his finger and opened the stasis box on her belt. Just before dropping it into the box, Daria stopped, staring at the Dominator Ring. She knew that she could very easily put it on and have complete vengeance upon the Ringwraiths.
Jane pushed Daria's shoulder and said, "Daria, you're creeping me out. Don't stare at the damn thing; just lock it up so my ring starts to work again."
When Daria didn't move at all, Jane said, "Daria!" and grabbed her hand, trying to drop the ring into the box.
Daria's head snapped up and Jane was startled by the hate and anger behind Daria's eyes. Jane gulped and said, "Put it in the box, Daria. You know it's for the best."
Daria's eyes grew wider at hearing Jane's suggestion.
"You can't turn into him," Jane said. "Or you'll lose Quinn forever."
Hearing her sister's name shook Daria out of the clutches of temptation and she put the ring into stasis. She dropped back and caught her breath. "Damn."
"You had me worried there."
"I had me worried. I have to go and destroy that ring right away. I can't take any chances."
"Okay," Jane said, standing and generating a perfect glamour of herself as the Dominator. "How do I look?" she said in his voice.
"Frighteningly real," Daria said. She then stepped over and gave Jane a hug. "Good luck."
"Good luck to you, too," Jane said.
"If this works, we won't remember each other. So, let me tell you now that you're the best friend I could ever have, no matter what world I'm in."
Earth: Universe D-476. 1,011 years ago.
The people of Earth were under siege. Despite the bravery of their soldiers and the skills of their alchemists, they were unable to contain the zombie infestation that threatened to destroy their civilization. Within a workshop isolated from other buildings of the planet's leading university, a woman and a man worked. In carefully orchestrated order, the man polished a platinum ring with different powders, each imbuing the ring with abilities. The woman watched and took careful notes. After a long evening, the man dabbed a darkly glowing powder onto the polishing cloth and began the final endowment.
Outside, a portal opened and Daria stepped out, looking around to get her bearings. She could sense a single ring on the planet, though the signal seemed oddly incomplete. More importantly, she could detect millions of undead on the planet. Though she'd mostly used her ring to fight the Ringwraiths, it still retained its native antipathy for zombies and she felt drawn to fight and destroy the danger that brought the rings into existence.
Her thoughts were broken by the feeling from the ring that something was about to happen. No sooner had she raised a force shield than there was an explosion within the building, followed by a pulse of radiation. Daria flew toward the building and felt the radiation rising. She absorbed the radiation in her ring and fought her way in.
The first person she found was the woman, covered in heat and radiation burns. Daria used her telekinesis to lift the woman and carry her out of the building before setting her on the ground. The woman was already dying from the massive radiation pulse, so Daria began healing her. At the same time, she continued to absorb the radiation coming from within the building in the hopes of preventing others in the area from falling ill.
After several minutes, the woman came around and Daria said, "Take it easy; you're going to be all right. What's your name?"
"Miranda," she said. After a look from side to side, she tried to sit up. "Dallen! Where are you?"
Daria gently put her hands on the woman's shoulders. "Take it easy. Is there someone else in the building?"
The woman looked around. "Dallen. We were finishing the ring and then he was going to try it on."
"Damn," Daria muttered, flying back to the building. On the other side of the wreckage, she found Dallen's body, face down. Still clutched in one hand was the source of the radiation, the platinum ring. Concentrating, she managed to absorb the remaining radiation and with a slight effort, used her elemental control to snuff out the remaining fires.
She rolled him over and then stumbled back in horror. He had the face of the Dominator. Daria then remembered the empty chairs in the council chamber and Raphael saying, "One is Miranda, the original wearer of the First Ring, and the other is Dallen, the genius behind the Rings."
Daria understood. In this universe, Dallen died so that Miranda became the First Ringbearer. In turn, that must mean that in the universe of her Ringbearers, Dallen became the First Ringbearer as planned and then somehow, the Dominator.
It wasn't too late to resurrect Dallen when Daria lifted him telekinetically and carried him out to Miranda before setting him on the ground. Sick to her stomach over what she had to do, Daria knelt and said, "I'm sorry."
The term "horseless carriage" was the best way Daria could describe the vehicle speeding toward her and Miranda. Though Daria had tried to comfort the other woman, she continued to cry over the body of Dallen. Daria stood and waited for the vehicle to stop.
When it did, a much younger Raphael stepped out, along with the other researchers who would later become the Ringmaster Council. "Who are you?" he demanded as several others went to Miranda and Dallen.
"My name's Daria," she replied.
"How did you get into this secure area?"
She held up her hand. "I have a ring, a future generation of the one Miranda and Dallen were making."
Raphael came closer and looked. "Okay, I see a ring."
Daria gently lifted him a couple inches off of the ground with her telekinesis. "I can show you other powers, like this," she said, letting the ring glow like natural sunlight.
"How did you get that?"
"It's a very long story. Suffice it to say that I'm from your future and you will see me again in about a thousand years. Now, if you will excuse me, I have something very important I must do."
Daria opened a portal to Earth D-674 and entered it, aiming to arrive a few minutes before she did on the one she was leaving.
Earth: Universe D-1001. Present day.
"Well, they're not buying it," Jane said as she dropped the glamour and retreated from the dozen Ringwraiths advancing on her by shadow walking through the disabled door to her left. After a moment's confusion, the Ringwraiths followed. In short order, Jane was making quick hops from place to place in the EMP-disabled complex, leaving traps or taking occasional pot shots at the chasing enemies while they shot back as they had the chance.
As the pursuit wore on, Jane could tell that more and more Ringwraiths were joining. Keep coming, she thought. If you're chasing me, you're not stopping Daria.
Earth: Universe D-674. 1,011 years ago.
Daria arrived outside the matching workroom on the Earth of her Ringbearers. Either Dallen is the one that survives the explosion, or the explosion never happens in this reality.
Once again, she remembered something Raphael said in the council chamber. "Before you ask, we have met you in our past and in your future."
I've done this before...and I failed.
Daria tried to think of the best course of action. Dammit, how do I know what to do? Whatever I did last time was wrong, but will I do the same thing or will the knowledge lead me to do something else? I need to think of a completely different way.
Daria felt hope. Hope like she hadn't felt since before she'd put the ring on her finger. I know what to do.
Earth: Universe D-1001. Present day.
"They're pissed. They're really pissed," Jane muttered as she rolled away from a falling section of ceiling. Her game of hide and seek was becoming more destructive as additional Ringwraiths joined the chase, each assuming that Jane held the Dominator Ring and that this was their chance to grab it for themselves. Everyone else had abandoned the complex as the Ringwraiths not only chased Jane, but battled each other for the chance to kill her.
Creating a large puddle of water and then heating it to steam to act as a quick smoke screen, Jane flew away through a gash in the building and toward a tower she saw across the compound. "Maybe a little height advantage will do me some good."
Earth: Universe D-674. 1,011 years ago.
It didn't take long for Daria to find the Defense Ministry and then the situation room. After that, it was a fairly simple matter to find the epicenter of the zombie outbreak and when they were first reported.
The next step was to open a portal to that time and place.
The little community where the outbreak started looked to be about as boring as Lawndale. But as soon as Daria appeared, the ring detected hundreds of zombies already in control of the town. "Time to end this," Daria said as she flew forward about twenty feet above the ground. She started at one corner of the town and used the evenly platted streets as a guide to systematically cover the town, using one of the ring's primary, but previously unused, powers to burn the zombies to dust. Back and forth she traveled until the entire town was cleared.
After she investigated the town, it became apparent that the water reservoir was the source of the zombie contamination. Daria decontaminated the water and continued as she followed the clear stream that supplied it up the nearby mountain.
Earth: Universe D-1001. Present day.
Thrown backwards, Jane crashed through a wall. Beaten, tired and her ring failing, she blacked out and let her shields drop. The full force of her impact against the next wall shattered her spine and broke most of her ribs. Her ring couldn't heal the wounds fast enough before a particularly large and cunning Ringwraith stood before her. Jane had seen him kill other Ringwaiths without pause and knew that her time had come. "I hope I kept them busy long enough, Daria."
The Ringwraith gloated over his prize. "Mine."
Complete loathing came over Jane and she thought of the one power of her ring found in no other. Black sunlight. Anti-energy. A faded memory of the first wearer told Jane it was what caused the creator's death. It would allow Jane to destroy each and every Ringwraith. But it would also destroy the planet and the billions of innocents that lived there, forced to support the Dominator because they'd known no other way.
Instead, Jane closed her eyes and waited for the end.
Earth: Universe D-674. 1,011 years ago.
Far up the mountain, Daria found a crater that formed a wide pool in the stream. Inside the crater was a small, bronze colored ovoid craft. With barely a moment's warning from her ring, a muzzle appeared from a hidden port on the side of the craft and a blast of plasma was fired at her. Daria dodged low and struck out at the ship with her quintessence, taking control of the simple self-defense mechanism and causing it to short out. Liking the symbolism, she turned the craft and all of its components into water that mixed with the stream flow. Lastly, she decontaminated the pool, removing all trace of the zombie contagion. The only sound left along the stream was the gurgle of the water and a slight rustle of wind as Daria faded to nonexistence.
Earth: Universe D-476. Present day.
Standing in the Ringmasters' council chamber, Richard watched Daria's final act on the small, handheld device that he always carried. More than satisfied at her solution, he turned it off and returned it to his belt. Addressing the assembled council, he said, "The time loop for your universe is now fixed in place and the feeder alternate universes are stable."
Raphael nodded. "And so, with the changes to the rings you convinced us to make after Daria departed those many years ago, our future is no longer at risk."
"The future is always at risk, though now yours is under much less."
One of the other members said, "So the other Corps of Ringbearers?"
"They will forever be the Lost Ringbearers."
"We won't forget them."
Raphael said, "With the changes in the rings, our history has now changed. We will strive to remember all that formerly happened, to avoid our mistakes of that past."
"Very good," Richard said. "If you will please excuse me, I should report to my superiors."
Richard pressed a control on his portable computer and stepped through a portal to his home office. He sat down on a simple office chair set within a U-shaped, built-in work area and picked up a telephone. "Reset complete, ma'am."
Earth: Universe D-320. Present day.
Ringbearer Jane sat straight up in bed. "Whoa." She looked around and relaxed; she was at home in Lawndale. "What a dream. That felt way beyond real."
Faintly, she heard a knock at the front door. "Talk about timing," she said. "Since I'm up, I might as well get it. I bet it's Robert and Daria."
After making sure her old t-shirt and shorts were not seriously out of place, Jane went downstairs and opened the door.
"Good morning, Jane," Richard said.
"You're...you're that Agency guy I've seen around Nova Valdris."
"One and the same."
Wary, Jane said, "What brings you here?"
"Have you had any odd dreams lately? Ones that seem more like memories?"
He said, "I thought that someone should remember her."
Earth: Universe D-899. 35 months ago.
Enjoying their day together, Daria thought, She really is helping. Dammit, why did we have to fight so much for so long? just before Quinn held up a red blouse. Daria said, "I really like it except...don't you think the neckline is cut a little low?"
"Come on, Daria. I know you're not a cold fish - and you just might find some college boy you want to really impress."
Daria looked down. "I don't think of these as really impressive."
"Daria, they're boobs. Guys will be impressed," Quinn said, teasing.
For a moment, Daria's eyes shifted to her hand as if expecting to see something there. She shook off the feeling and instead, felt amazingly free. "Okay sis, I'll get it. Just in case."
Caught off-guard, Quinn said, "Really?"
"Really," Daria said, giving Quinn a rare smile. "I think it's time to start a new chapter in my life."
Thanks to Kristen Bealer an Brother Grimace for beta reading.