Mark of Prophecy

by Jon Struckmann

Mark of Prophecy

by J.D. Struckmann

     A light gust of wind blew freshly fallen leaves across the wagon trail. The bright sun was almost reaching its zenith and burning bright through a cloudless sky. The road followed the edge of a large forest that stretched to the east, the branches of the great oak trees intertwining with each other to form a natural canopy. Summer was coming to a close and autumn was awakening and making its presence known, creeping into the leaves of the trees and slowly changing their vibrant green color to the more somber tones of brown, yellow, and orange that the season preferred.

     The west side of the road opened into rolling plains that stretched far and wide, eventually reaching the foot of a small mountain range. Many plantations dotted the landscape where farmers plied their trade day in and day out tilling soil, planting seeds, and milking their cows.

     The road itself led to the striving town of Omir that was situated atop a low plateau of a grassy hill. The town was built at the northern tip of the country Jhandar and just a stones throw away from Jhandar's neighbor Thuvia. A wide, rushing river, the Alahone River, acted as a border between the two countries.

     A lone figure strolled up the path, striding between the deep ruts made by the wagons that traverse this trail frequently. The man walked with the graceful gait of a warrior, his movements fluid but at the same time tensed, ready for any circumstance. The figure was yellow-skinned and garbed in a brown loose fitting, short-sleeved tunic that partially exposed his hard muscled chest and taut, sinewy arms. His legs were covered in baggy pants of the same color that were tied just below the knee and at the ankle. A wide cloth belt, tied at the small of his back kept the pants up and the tunic closed. Wicker sandals adorned his feet. Atop his head is a wide conical hat, strapped around chin that hid his eyes from the sun. His handsome face was long and narrow but it had a strong jawline and high cheekbones. It was a relatively young face, having not yet seen thirty summers. In the figure's hand was a sheathed sword.

     The sword was not a weapon that one would find in this part of the land. The handle was long and fashioned from ivory. Drawings were carved into the handle, an intricate tapestry of images depicting the culture of the man's native land. The hilt was circular with designs of dragons engraved on it. From the shape of the red lacquered scabbard, one could tell the blade curved gently and was only around three feet long.

     The man's name is Akira Miramoto. He is far from his homeland of Tokuran, across the Crystal Sea. He had come to this land, the continent of Mythalon, by way of three different ships. One of which was a pirate ship that he had commendeered, with the help of a small crew, after the pirates had attack the ship he was traveling on. The ship had been too badly damaged to continue and the pirate ship was in much better shape, so the choice was an obvious one: go down with the sinking vessel or fight back and take over the pirates' own ship.

     Akira had just quit the city of Baelan, the capital of Jhandar, after a fatal encounter with a fanatical demon-worshipping cult. Fatal for the cult, of course. He was now on his way to Omir, if not to get away from Baelan and its inquiring royal guard, then to make some extra coin to live off of. He might be able to sell his swordarm to a travelling merchant or something of the like. If not that, there were other, less scrupulous ways to obtain what he needed.

     He cringed slightly at that thought. He always wished to choose the honorable path, the ideal had been ingrained in his thinking since birth. But ever since his fall from grace he had been forced to go against his morals to survive. He was no stranger to thievery and entering a place that was not supposed to be entered.

     Akira tilted his head up towards the sun. The shade the hat provided vanished with the movement, revealing his slanted, almond-shaped eyes. They were the color of impending storm clouds. A profound strength resided behind those eyes, as well as wisdom; experience beyond his years. Among the strength and wisdom, lurked an intense sorrow that was just below the surface. Those eyes had seen many battles, the death of close comrades, and treachery and betrayal of the heart.

     As Akira gazed up at the sun, continueing its never-ending cycle of movement, he thought how this very sun was shining down on his homeland; who over there was basking in its warm rays, just for a moment forgetting about the troubles of the day, of life. He wondered if trees of the many bamboo forests were soaking up the nutritional properties so they could grow taller and stronger.

     As Akira reminisced of home, a fierce scream ripped through his thoughts like a lightning splitting a tree trunk in twaid. The scream had surged through the maze of trees and assaulted Akira's ears. Another shriek struck him, this one sounding akin to despair and desperation. He paused only an instant then leaped into motion.

     Akira entered the forest like a flying arrow, hurdling fallen trees and boulders, homing in on the screams. He was not conscious of the decision to seek out the owner of the scream. His sense of honor still suffused his soul and must be guiding his hand.

     Thunder pumped in his viens as he raced through the forest. Even though he was running full speed, his sandaled feet barely made a noise. His years in service to the conniving and deceiving Bayushi clan did have its benefits.

     The scream assailed him again with more urgency. It came from somewhere off to his left. Akira veered in that direction. He decided he should secure a better vantage point. He sprung for a low hanging branch and used his momentum to swing around to crounch atop it. He then leaped for a higher branch. He proceeded to bound from branch to branch, tree to tree with the agility and balance of a panther.

     Akira started to hear voices; he slowed his pace.

     The burly man with a ragged scar across his left eye and a bushy black beard approached Shaldrissa menacingly. A broad waist hung from broad shoulders. A bear skin vest wrapped his husky torso over a green tunic and a filthy, travelled stained pair of pants covered his stout legs. A larg, broad-bladed, long-hafted battleaxe was slung across his back. He gripped a fat bladed hunting knife in his meaty paw. The knife dripped blood from its blade, having already been plunged into the gut of Shaldrissa's friend and bodyguard, Dirvel. His body lay no more than ten paces away, face down, blood pooling around his still form. All she wanted to do was rush to him and see if he would live, but that was impossible with the giant in front of her. The rest of his comrades, there were four others, were spread out around her, boxing her in.

     The two men behind and on either side of the knife-wielder were both large, strong fellows, with sturdy broadswords. One of them had the sides of his head shaved bare, leaving only a tall strip of hair running down the middle of his scalp. The other had long, greasy shoulder length hair.

     There was another assailant to Shaldrissa's right who was whip thin and danced on the balls of his feet. A long length of chain dangled from his hands. One end was weighted with a molded piece of iron while the other had a forearm length blade attached to it. He started to spin the knife end lazily.

     The man to Shaldrissa's left was of medium build with a scraggly goatee and missing teeth. He hefted a hand axe in either hand.

     She focused back on the immediate threat. With each step that the knife wielder took, Shaldrissa retreated until her back finally met the trunk of a tree.

     "I finally caught you, witch," sneered the black bearded man, flecks of saliva spraying from his mouth to mingle with the grease in his beard. "You have been a very elusive prey, but after our last encounter, I swore I would hunt you across the Sorlak mountains and into Khurazai if I had to." He approached further, brandishing the knife, the sunlight that filtered through the branches of the trees glinting off the blade. As he moved with his knife, his tunic opened slightly and a small jewel, attached to a leather thong around his neck, fell out. The jewel was red like the sun just before dusk.

     "Cyrus," Shaldrissa replied, "go tell your master that he will never have me alive." She tried to look back at Cyrus defiantly but knew she only looked like a frightened young child to the hairy, burly men.

     "There is no way out of this one, witch," threatened Cyrus. He kept a close eye on her, making sure she didn't make any untoward gestures that would signify her use of her special powers. His brother had not watched closely enough last time and had paid the ultimate price. "He is not my master, only my employer. He said he wanted you alive, but he said nothing of you being in one piece," a malignant gleam shone in his one good eye. "This knife is going to be acquainted with every part of your body before you die." He was almost drooling with the thought of finally getting his long sought revenge. How he had longed for this moment, the thought occupying his dreams every night for months. At first it was pure business; seek out this girl and bring her back. But ever since the witch had brought about the death of his brother, it had become very personal. He did not deserve to die, it wasn't his fault that he killed two of her companions; they had attacked him first anyway.

      Cyrus almost giggled at the sight of the trembling girl in front of him. She was so frightened, too frightened even to weave her devilish spells against him. He was going to enjoy this.

     "It would be a shame to ruin such a pretty face." A new voice said all of sudden.

     "What?" Cyrus looked around frantically, trying to locate the source of the voice. He finally looked up, above Shaldrissa's head. A man was perched liesurely in the very tree that the girl was backed up against. He looked completely foreign to Cyrus, clearly not of Jhandarian descent; not even from Mythalon at all.

     A wide-brimmed hat cast a shadow over his eyes and he chewed on a blade of grass. He was sitting in the crook where the trunk of the tree split, making a V. One of his feet was propped against one half while his other foot dangled down the trunk and his back was resting against the other half of the branching trunk. A sword rested in his lap. "Who the hell are you?" Cyrus was furiuos at himself for not noticing the man climbing the tree. No. He couldn't be mad at himself, he was intent on the girl, making sure she didn't escape. The blame certainly fell on his gang of misfits. How could they not hear or see this stranger approach let alone scaling the tree. He made a mental note to thoroughly reprimand them after dealing with this fool.

     "Nobody important," Akira said matter-of-factly. "I was just passing by and came upon you fine gentlemen and this lovely lady."

     "Stay out of this stranger," Cyrus warned. "You have no business in this." Cyrus couldn't believe the audacity of this man. He must have an unequivocal death wish. He couldn't possibly take on all his men including himself.

     "And you have no business waving that knife around," countered Akira. "Why don't you put that away and no one will be hurt."

     Cyrus sneered up at the insolent stranger, "Why don't you come down here, you yellow-skinned cur, and I will show you what I can do with his knife?" Cyrus felt he alone was easily a match for this outlander. He probably outweighed him by ninety pounds and his axe could break that toothpick of a sword in one good swing. But, to err on the safe side, Cyrus decided to keep the witch in check and let his boys have some fun.

     Cyrus made a small gesture and the rest of his gang drew their weapons and started to close in on the tree where Akira perched. Akira seemed disinterested. He sighed forlornly then he tilted his head up and the sun revealed his slanted eyes that were hidden in shadow a moment before. Those gray eyes narrowed and stared straight into Cyrus's remaining beady orb. In that moment, when those steely pools of gray met with Cyrus's black lump of coal, rooting him to the spot, he knew he was not long for this world. Cyrus couldn't explain it if he ever had the chance to. Those stormy eyes seem to be sizing him up, finding his every weakness, his every flaw. It was as if they were playing through every move of the fight before it even began; and Cyrus would not be the victor.

     Akira, with the quickness of a leopard, launched from his perch, plunging headlong toward the ground. Like an eagle diving for its prey Akira angled for Cyrus. Akira's sword flashed once and returned to its scabbard in the blink of an eye. He flew past Cyrus, landed, and rolled into a crouch.

     Cyrus had just enough time to sidestep and raise his knife, pitiful defense as it was but it was all he had. The wide, heavy blade was neatly cloven in two, the top half toppling to the ground.

     Cyrus stared at it in astonishment for an instant. Anger smoldered in his one eye as he hurled the useless piece of metal aside and reached back to draw his large axe.

     The other brigands around Akira stood shocked for a moment. Then the realization of what just occurred sank in and there faces turned from dumbstruck to outrage.

     "Well," Cyrus roared, "don't just stand there, maggots, get him!"

     The other brigands were goaded into action by their boss's order. They all rushed in to attack Akira. All except for the lean man with the chain, he stayed to the outskirts of the skirmish, trying to find an opening for his instrument.

     The three other ruffians assailed Akira at once, swinging their swords and axes with abandon. Akira moved among them like a deadly dancer, his blade singing through the air and he twirled and spun gracefully. His movements were fluid like water and supple like a tiger. The men looked like clumsy drunkards, trying ineffectually to score a hit with their weapons. Akira was there one moment and inexplicably gone, sword or axe cleaving nothing but air.

     The man with the handaxes attempted a double handed overhead strike. Akira's sword came up and caught the axes where the heads met the haft. Spinning on his toes, he simultaneously thrust the axes aside and brought his other foot around to slam savagely into the man's temple. The axes slipped from loose fingers and the man toppled to the ground, the side of his skull caved in.

     Akira slid his foot under one of the handaxes and propelled it into the air. He caught it with his left hand and struck a defensive pose as the two swordsmen waded in, their steel hungry for his flesh.

     The one with the mohawk came in ferociously, his blade darting in and out with a flurry. Akira's own sword or his borrowed handaxe was there to meet the other's sword at every swipe, swing and lunge. It was as if he could anticipate the next move before the brigand even thought of it; or else he was just that fast.

     The clang of steel rang out through the forest as the combatants faced off. It seemed there was no breaching Akira's defenses and this quickly frustrated the swordsman. His greasy haired friend decided to join the melee, hoping two blades against the one would overwhelm the Tokurani.

     Akira started to lose ground to the two assailants, but his defenses never faltered. Sweat began to break out on his brow. His eyes cast about, searching for something that might aid him. These men were not that skilled with the sword but two of them at once was becoming taxing. Sooner or later Akira felt his shield of whirling steel would waver and one or both of the mercenaries would land a lucky blow.

     Akira spotted something, off to his right. It was inconspicuous in nature, but he could find a use for it.

     Akira batted aside the sword of the oily-haired man with his axe, setting him off-balance. He sidestepped and swept the next attack from the other assailant toward his comrade, his momentum causing his feet to entangle in themselves. He stayed upright, but just barely.

     Akira danced out of their range and waited till they gathered themselves again. Unrestrained rage brandished in his foes' eyes as they charged at Akira, bellowing indiscernible warcries. Akira turned his back on them and ran.

     A large oak tree with a wide trunk loomed ahead of him, just a few yards away; he dashed straight for it with the brigands in close pursuit. Akira reached the tree, but instead of turning to face the attackers, he flitted up the trunk like a monkey. His legs propelled him up with amazing speed. He ascended almost ten feet before kicking off the trunk. He arched his back and spread his arms wide, sailing through the air like a graceful bird.

     The swordsmen had skidded to a halt at the base of the tree and were presently staring up in astonishment at the flying man. Akira flipped over and landed in a crouch behind the dumbfounded brigands. His left hand shot out and the axe hooked the ankle of the greasy man, sweeping his foot out from under him. He landed in a crumpled pile. Akira's sword came rushing around to open the torso of the other ruffian, the blade hewing a gory path of blood and bone. Akira acted so swiftly his movements were a blur; the men barely had time to breath let alone raise their weapons in defense.

     As the man fell Akira reversed his blade downward and plunged it into the brigand on the ground. The sword slid cleanly through the stomach missing bones but scything through arteries. The man screamed in agony. Crimson blood sprayed up in a fine mist as Akira retracted his sword. A death rattle gurgled from the man's throat.

     Akira heard something whirl through the air. A chain was wrapped about his neck before he could react, the links biting into his flesh. He spun to face his accoster. The slender mercenary, a wicked grin splitting his face, had the other end of the chain clenched in his fist and he proceded to reel Akira in.

     The chain grew increasingly tighter around Akira's throat, cutting off his air. He started to gasp for breath, his lungs screaming at him for oxygen. His vision started blurring as his feet dug into the soft earth. The angular man was deceptively strong, pulling the stubborn Tokurani inexorably closer to him.

     Akira raised his sword arm high then brought it down with crushing force. The chain was snapped apart. The chain-wielder staggered back by the abrupt slack in the chain. Akira followed his momentum with the sword swipe, spinning on the balls of his feet. The left arm whipped around and the axe flew from his hand. The weapon spun through the air. The man only had time to squawk in surprise before the axe blade thudded into his skull with a wet thunk, like a pumpkin being split.

     Akira was grateful for the relief on his throat. He gulped in great breaths of clean air. He was occupied disentangling the chain from his throat when he heard a rush of feet and a saw a glint of metal in his eye.

     He rolled out of the way of Cyrus's rapidly descending axe, missing being spilt down the middle by a hair's breadth.

     "You killed my men, outlander!" thundered Cyrus. "For that tear you limb from limb and leave the pieces for the worms!" He fell on Akira with slavering madness, his huge axe humming resoundly with every swing.

     Akira retreated back, ducking and evading Cyrus's frenzied attacks. The bear of a man moved astonishingly fast for his size. Akira dropped and rolled to his right under high horizontal swipe. Akira came up slashing, scoring a hit on Cyrus's flank. Blood flowed freely from the hideous wound. The big man faltered a little but came roaring back at Akira just as ferociously. Akira leapt back in a single bound out of reach of the long-hafted axe.

     Cyrus came at him like a charging bull, his chest heaving, nostrils flaring and froth foaming at his mouth. Akira backpedaled in the face of the terrible rush. His foot caught on a gnarled root. He toppled over backwards, landing on his backside.

     The mercenary leader loomed over Akira, his axe raised over his head poised for the final deathblow. Cyrus smiled viciously, the strange red jewel reflecting madness in his eye. He made to smote Akira from this world when suddenly he was wrenched from the ground by unseen hands.

     Akira looked on in astonishment as the branches of the tree he lay next to seemed to come alive. The reached down to entwine Cyrus in their grasp. One such branch ripped the axe from Cyrus's beefy hands, others restrained his arms and legs. The natural bonds cinched tight, illiciting a groan and grimace from their captive.

     Over Cyrus's moans Akira discerned a quiet murmuring. He glanced to his left and his gaze fell upon the girl. Her left arm was raised with her fingers splayed open. She was mumbling in a strange language that Akira had never heard before. It sounded like a language long lost to Mythalon. The power she wielded was palpable in the air, raising the hackles on his neck.

     This being the first good look he had taken of her, Akira acknowledged that she was beautiful, not breathtakingly so but enough to make a man take notice. She was young, probably had not seen more than eighteen summers. She had dark auburn hair that was thick and hung below her shoulders. Her face was oval shaped and her skin was light as alabaster. Her lips were full and her hazel eyes were large and round. She wore a modest travelling clothes in the way of brown leather breeches and green tunic. The pants were tucked into soft boots that reached mid-calf. The clothes were stained and dirty from many miles of travel and they failed to hide her slender, shapely figure. He also noticed a strange birth mark on the right side of her neck that was half covered by the collar of her tunic.

     Akira ascertained that this girl was the catalyst for the branches acting as if alive. Cyrus was right, he thought, she is a witch. He eyed her warily with this newfound knowledge, hoping her baleful gaze did not turn on him next.

     Meanwhile Cyrus was struggling against his bonds to no avail; the branches held fast, as tight as a vise. He was suspended a yard or so off the ground. Soon the wooden fingers ceased writhing and seemed to solidify into normal branches again. The quiet murmuring of the girl stopped as well and she approached the hanging mercenary.

     Akira regained his footing fluidly. He wiped clean his blade on one of the corpses and sheathed his sword. He wanted to question this witch but she seemed intent on Cyrus at the moment.

     "It seems our roles are reversed," Shaldrissa intoned.

     Cyrus hawked and spit at Shaldrissa's feet, "Just get it over with, witch. Don't play your games with me."

     "I don't have any games," she shot back, her voice quivering slightly. "I only want some answers."

     "I don't know anything, you alley trull!" Cyrus roared indignantly at the girl.

     "Has he found her?" Shaldrissa cut straight to her main goal. She had to discover the answer to this one question before ridding herself of this pile of cow dung.

     Cyrus was silent for a moment. He spat again, this time blood flew from his mouth. The ghastly wound in his side was taking its toll, blood seeped through the branches wrapped about his torso and dripped like a gory waterfall down his leg and onto the ground. "Heh, you'll find out soon enough when you see him," he rasped. "Oh yes, he will find you. There's no doubt about that, pretty. He has his ways." He smile and bloodstained teeth showed through his bushy beard.

     "Tell me you bastard!" Shaldrissa shrieked, tears started to flow down her cheeks. Akira noticed her left hand at her side tightened into a fist.

     Cyrus groaned loudly as the branches constricted around him, squeezing him like someone would an orange to get the juice out. His breath came in choking gulps.

     "All right, all right, release me!" pleaded Cyrus, the pain becoming unbearable. Shaldrissa's hand made a beckoning motion and the tree limbs stretched and bent, bringing Cyrus closer to the ground and face to face with Shaldrissa.

     Cyrus gasped desperately to get air into his lungs, but through it all he maintained that wolfish grin. Shaldrissa loosened the hold on him slightly, enough for him to speak.

     "I don't care what power you have, witch, you'll never stop him," Cyrus then spat again, straight into Shaldrissa's face. The glob of saliva and blood struck Shaldrissa, blinding her eyes for a moment. She recoiled back.

     Cyrus howled with uproariously until he felt a sharp prick at his throat. He looked down the length of an elegantly curved sword then into the storm-grey eyes of the outlander. The man's jaw was clenched and his face grim.

     "If you want to keep your remaining eye, you will not do that again," Akira intoned in a low voice that brooked no argument. "Now answer the lady's questions."

      Cyrus's leering smile crept across his face again for a moment. Then in an instant the smile was wiped from his blood covered mouth, replaced by a look of sheer terror as if Death himself loomed over Shaldrissa's shoulder looking down on him, his bony claw curling, beckoning the man to his rightful place in Death's domain.

     "No! No!" Cyrus wailed a shriek that froze Akira to the marrow. The mercenary started convulsing uncontrollably, shaking in the grasp of the branches. Shaldrissa thought she saw, through the spaces in the bonds, something moving under the man's tunic. She ripped it open and let out a small squeal. Under his tunic was a gruesome sight. The flesh of Cyrus's stomach was rippling and moving like the tide, as if a thousand tiny things were striving get free. He started to gurgle and Akira wrenched Shaldrissa away from him just before a torrent of bees swarmed up his throat and burst from his mouth. They not only spewed forth from his mouth but his eyes, ears and nose also. A great buzzing noise filled the air, grating on Akira's nerves and he felt as if insects were crawling from his ears as well, the noise was so incessant.

     "What foul sorcery is this?" exclaimed Akira, appalled at the gruesome sight before him. He did not know who did this; was it the girl or someone, something, else. He knew there was magic at work here, but he somehow could not believe the girl could be responsible for this hideous act. She was angry, yes, but she did not seem the vengeful, murderous type. What a horrible way to die, he thought. Akira visibly shuddered.

     "It's the black arts wielded by the sorcerer Talgoth," Shaldrissa said quietly, not able to take her eyes from the withered carcass the mercenary leader had become. As all the bees escaped, the body seemed to deflate, as if the winged insects were holding the shell of flesh and muscle together. A blanket of empty flesh now hung from the branches, like laundry hung out to dry.

     Akira and Shaldrissa were too horrified at what had just occurred to notice that strange jewel lying against Cyrus's chest. A brief moment, if any one was looking, they would have caught a glimpse of a human eye flash in the facets of the red gem. The eye saw everything that transpired. It flashed green for an instant then vanished just before the jewel shattered with a small popping sound and disintegrated to dust that dispersed on some unnatural wind.

     Akira had not a clue who this Talgoth was. He decided to see to the girl first before inquiring about him.     

     "Are you all right?" asked Akira as he sheathed his sword and slid it through his belt.

     Shaldrissa started, as if noticing him for the first time. She leapt away suddenly, out reach of Akira. Her eyes were wide like a frightened deer with no place to escape.

     Akira raised both his hands, keeping them away from his sword and to show here he meant no harm. She has just been through a traumatic event and it seemed she did not know how to handle it. She looked as if she were on the frayed ends of sanity.

     He addressed her in a calm, soothing voice, "I'm not going to hurt you. I just want to be sure you are unhurt."

     She eyed him suspiciously, her eyes darting left and right then back at him. She was either looking for an escape or for more dangers to assail her. "How do I know you don't want me for your own devices?" Her voice was shrill and edged with fear. She realized her accusations were groundless and this man had risked his life to save her. But Talgoth could have put out a reward for her capture and their could be any number of bounty hunters and mercenaries vieing to find her. This man may be one of those hunters, seeing his prey being cornered by a rival group of thugs. He needed to take them out so he could claim the reward.

     "Why would I go through all this trouble of rescueing you just to have my way with you. I may be down on my luck, but attacking five armed mercenaries for a fleeting moment of pleasure is not worth it," Akira said evenly, trying to make the girl look at the situation logically.

     "Why risk you life for me?" she asked, trying to catch him in a lie. "You don't even know me yet you would face five men to save me. Do you have a deathwish?" She started to carefully step to her right, one foot crossing over the other.

     Akira stayed in his spot but turned to keep her in front of him. "I don't like to see defenseless women get attacked by anyone."

     "I am not defenseless," she countered. She gazed into the slanted, steely grey eyes and her confidence faltered. The eyes exuded a sense of honesty and sincerity in their depths. No lawless brigand or bounty hunter could have faked such raw emotion. He must be the real thing.

     "I realize that now," Akira conceded. "In that case, with your infinite power you must not need my help. Take care, my lady." With those words he turned on his heel and started walking away from the girl, heading back to the road.

     "Wait," he heard the girl call to him. Her voice contained a note of panic, like a child lost in the wilderness. "Don't go." The look he had given her when he turned had made her feel ashamed for questioning his motives and for turning him away.

     Akira stopped and turned back to her. He had only gone half a dozen paces. He noticed that her hazel eyes were welling up with tears.

     "Maybe I could use your help," she whispered loud enough for Akira to hear. She cast her eyes down, almost ashamed to admit her weakness.

     Akira should have kept walking. He had other things to worry about than the problems of this girl. He needed to find a rich merchant he could become a bodyguard for, not wait for her to make up her mind as to what she wants. But, then, why did you race headlong into unkown danger if you did not intend on seeing it through? his sense of honor questioned him.

     "What is it that you require?" he asked.

     "I need safe passage into Thuvia. I know it is not far from here, but I could use the help all the same. I don't have much money, but I could pay you." She looked at him with mixed emotions on her face, part expectantly, hoping he would taker her up on her offer. The other part scared that he would. She did not want to put anybody else in danger. Too many had died already.

     Akira's face remained impassive but a battle was being waged inside his head. He fought over the right course of action. He knew this girl must not be wealthy, so there would not be much in the way of payment from her. There were mercenaries, under the employ of a sorcerer no less, that were intent on capturing her. He was not ignorant to magic-users but he was averse to becoming entangled in the machinations of one. The girl herself was some kind of wizard as well. All these things did not sit well in his stomach but all of that could not overwhelm his honor or righteous sense of justice.

     He nodded his head sharply, making up his mind. "I will take you to Thuvia. My payment will be in the form of a hot meal and a soft bed. Are we in agreement?"

     "Yes," replied Shaldrissa breathlessly, joy flashing in her eyes briefly. "Thank you. My name is Shaldrissa."

     "I am Akira," he bowed curtly to her.

     With that settled Shaldrissa's eyes scanned the scene of carnage around her. She had never seen anyone move as fast and fight with such skill as Akira had. It was truly amazing.

     Then her gaze finally lay upon the body of Dirvel, her bodyguard. With all the excitement and the appearance of this curious stranger, her brave friend had almost slipped her mind. She inwardly cursed herself for being so callous. She was by his side in an instant and carefully rolled him over onto his back. Akira saw, over Shaldrissa's shoulder, a man who was getting on in years and his lined face showed every year he had struggled through. The face might have been handsome at one time but it seemed stress and a hard life had turned handsome into homely. The hair on his head and face was turning gray and thinning out.

     The wound in Dirvel's abdomen was ghastly and deep and his blue eyes were wide and staring off into oblivion. Any life there was behind those eye only moments before was plainly gone now, drowned by death's cold grasp.

     Tears flooded Shaldrissa's eyes, threatening to burst out of them and cascade down her cheeks like a waterfall. She turned away from the body, her protector for many years, hoping the keep from balling like a child in the presence of the stranger, her savior. But it was more than she could bare and her shoulders shook with her quiet sobs.

     Akira stayed silent for a while. He knew what it was like to lose a comrade on the battlefield, and this person seemed to touch the woman profoundly. He turned away from her to let her mourn without a stranger staring.

     Far to the east, many leagues from the forest Akira and Shaldrissa stood in horrified shock, across plains and rolling hills and wide lakes rose a snow-capped mountain range. Most called this range the Sorlak Mountains. The mountains spanned for miles north and south, their peaks clawing for the sky. They acted as a border wall for the mysterious and dangerous country of Khurazai. Not many dared traverse these mountains for there was little in the way of safe passes and there were rumors of strange and deadly creatures that roamed the crags of the mountainside. Also, the thought of entering Khurazai territory uninvited was enough to keep even the most courageous adventurer at bay.

     Nestled deep in the Sorlak Mountains was a tower that few had ever laid eyes upon. Those that did usually never back home to wag their tongues about it. This tower made of a peculiar black stone looked like it was built as an addition to a tall peak. The tower itself was just one single spire rising ominously toward the sky. Inside this ebony tower, in a shrouded circular room, evil plots were unfolding.

     A tall, gaunt man, garbed in elaborate robes of red and gold, stood in the center of this room. The shallow light that emanated from the various torches on the walls gleamed off the figures bald pate. A long goatee, tied in a single braid, reached almost to his chest. A skeletal hand with long, pointed nails and ring-bedecked fingers stroked the goatee absently. One ring in particular, if one ever came close enough to see, read in archaic script long since lost from this world read the word 'Talgoth'. On either side of the long, angular nose were two tawny colored eyes that, if seen from the right angle, almost glowed with malevolence.

     Those eyes presently peered into a large orb. The orb rested on a sinister looking pedestal seemed to have grown out of the very stone itself and splayed out to a three-fingered claw. The orb revealed an image in its misty depths.

     The odd colored eyes watched as Shaldrissa entangled the last living mercenary and threatened him to talk. The owner of these eyes also took interest in the slant-eyed stranger that came to Shaldrissa's rescue and killed all the men under his employ. He would find more about this man later. At the moment he had to stop the Cyrus from talking, not that he could divulge much information. He was simply a tool.

     Talgoth turned to a large oak table that held an array of scrolls, potions, and other strange components. He picked up a small, ornate box and walked back to stand in front of the orb. He reached inside his voluminous robe and produce a tiny pouch which he drew a single strand of hair. The follicle came from the same head as the mercenary boss being interrogated at this very moment. Talgoth had been certain to acquire something personal from each of his employees for just such occasions.

     Talgoth then raised the small box and lifted the lid. A large hornet flew from its tiny confinement. Talgoth, with unnatural speed, snatch the insect from the air. He quickly opened the hand to place the piece of hair in with the hornet. He then brought his hand to his face and began to whisper heretical words of power into his closed fist. His tawny eyes started to glow green as he channeled the dark powers of his profession. When he had uttered the last syllable he unclenched his fist. The hornet and the hair had disappeared; leaving a faint, sparkling dust that Talgoth blew toward the orb. The dust floated from his open palm and coalesced around the orb.

A moment or two passed and nothing happened. With the great distance spells of this sort took some time. But then the incantation took effect and a smile crossed Talgoth's lips as the man in the orb started writhing in his wooden manacles.

     Only after he was sure the man was dead did Talgoth send another flow of power out to destroy the scrying device he had given to Cyrus, not wanting anyone to find it. He waved his arm in front of the orb and the image vanished, replaced by a swirling cloud of orange and black.

     "Rul," Talgoth called into the darkness.

     In one shadowed corner of the chamber a pair of glowing embers appeared in the air at head height. The levitating embers floated away from the corner. A form coalesced around the burning lights as made from the shadows. The darkness took the shape of a person and then the black shadows seemed to dissipate to reveal a bald headed man wrapped in a plain hooded black robe. The glowing embers became the man's eyes. He approached Talgoth and bowed languidly.

     "I live to serve, Master," Rul said with a hushed voice.

     "It seems that my human mercenaries could accomplish the simple task I set for them," began Talgoth with a slight hint of irritation in his raspy voice. "It is up to you now, Rul. Your quarry is just outside the town of Omir and will most likely be staying their tonight. I will prepare a portal for your journey. She travels with a stranger I have rarely seen the likes of on this continent. Be wary of him." Talgoth stared straight into those unnatural burning eyes. "Do not fail me."

     "Yes, Master. You will have your prize by morning," Rul said as he bowed again.

     "Very good. Time is running short and I cannot afford to waste another day on this insolent little girl." With that Talgoth turned and exited the chamber to prepare the way for Rul's travel to Omir.

     As Akira and Shaldrissa emerged from the forest the sun was just settling upon the horizon, turning the sky brilliant shades of orange and purple. They commenced the relatively short walk to the town of Omir.

     After the horrific experience back in the forest, Shaldrissa had gathered her things and taken anything she need from Dirvel's body. Akira offered to dig a grave for the man and Shaldrissa wordlessly nodded. Converniently, Shaldrissa had a small shovel among her belongings. It occurred to Akira that she and her companion were packed for a long journey with large packs for each of them filled with bedrolls and blankets and cooking utensils.

     After the shallow grave had been dug and Dirvel's lifeless body had been gently but unceremoniously place inside it, Akira stood off to the side to allow Shaldrissa the opportunity to say a few words between her quiet sobs. When she was finished, Akira struck Dirvel's long sword into the soil to act a tombstone.

     She watched as Akira drove the sword in the ground and was amazed at the strength concealed in his sinewy arms and compact frame. He wasn't very tall compared to the men that roamed this land; she could meet his eyes without looking up. His face was angular with a hard-lined jaw that softened when he smiled, although the smile never truly reached his eyes. She decided he was quite handsome in an exotic way. She especially took interest in those eyes. The slanted gray orbs were intoxicating and she felt that if she held his gaze too long that he would be able to read her soul and know all her fears and desires.

     Presently, Akira and his new charge reached the gates of Omir. The town was surrounded by a low stone wall, standing perhaps seven to eight feet tall, and there was only one gate to access it. The gate itself was made of strong, thick teak and was banded in metal and was guarded by two pike men that stood to either side.

     The guards waved them through, but stared at Akira as if he were part of the traveling circus that frequented the town and he was the main attraction of the freak show. Akira ignored them and proceeded through the gate. Since arriving on this continent, he had received many stares similar to those and he had become accustomed to them. Although some people were hostile at his presence, apparently not taking kindly strangers from strange lands taking up space in the inns or eating in the same common rooms as them. This Akira also took in stride.

     The town beyond the gate would soon need to be called a full-fledged city. The town had expanded greatly and was now building up instead of out for lack room within its walls. It was laid out in a maze of intersecting streets and back alleys and avenues. It looked as if there was no method to the madness of building and expanding the town. The various buildings seemed to have been built up wherever the architect wanted and the rest of the town just built around it.

     Akira approached merchant who was closing his stall for the day. "Excuse me," he began, "where might we find an inn for the night?"

     The merchant looked up from putting away the vegetables that were the main bulk of his inventory. He had a wide face with a scraggly white beard and wore a shapeless hat atop his head. Upon seeing Akira, his eyes narrowed and scrutinized the lean stranger before him. After a moment of looking Akira over, he shrugged his shoulders and straightened from his hunched position over his stock. In a scratchy voice he directed Akira through the complicated route to the Wailing Wench Inn.

     After making the merchant repeat the direction a couple more times, Akira thanked him and returned to Shaldrissa who was waiting a short distance away. They negotiated the cris-crossing streets and alleys and after a half hour of wandering came upon a two-story building with a sign reading the Wailing Wench above the door.

     The building seemed in decent shape, made of sturdy beams and thick stone. The large double doors were made of strong oak. Shaldrissa made to enter but Akira stopped her with a gentle hand on her shoulder.     

     "Normally I would be chivalrous and open the door for the lady, but in light of the situation I think I will enter first," Akira said in a low voice. He opened the door and entered with his hand on the hilt of his sword.

     The pair was greeted by a boisterous common room with a long bar to the left and a huge hearth on the right wall with the welcoming heat of a fire emanating from it. There were many tables strewn about the room and towards the back a wooden staircase led up to the second story where the rooms must be situated.

     Customers occupied almost all the tables and when the door opened every one of those customers turned to see who entered. Upon seeing Shaldrissa, the majority of the men's eyes lit up and small smiles started to twitch at their mouths. What those smiles meant ranged from simple admiration to lascivious lust. When Akira stepped up beside Shaldrissa, though, the smiles turned to grimaces and hushed mumbling spread through the patrons. After a moment they all turned back to their drinks and conversations.

     "I think it would be best if I handled the securing of our rooms for the night," Shaldrissa whispered to Akira through the side of her mouth. She had noted the derision from the customers upon seeing him.

     "As you wish," Akira replied simply. He never took his eyes from the crowd, his hand never straying far from his sword hilt.

     There were three steps leading down from the door to the main floor of the common room. Shaldrissa descended and angled left to talk to the barkeep while Akira headed to the right to stand by the hearth.

     Shaldrissa caught the attention of the barkeep, a portly man with a balding head and a large wart residing on the end of his nose. He turned to her, wiping her hands on his greasy leather apron, and asked what he could do for her in a gravely voice.

     "I would like two rooms for the night, please," she asked politely. She always felt that asking was better than demanding.

     "I'm sorry, lass, but I've only got one room left," he replied, taking an empty mug off the bar and starting to wipe it with a filthy rag.

     At the news she cast a furtive glance back at Akira who was leaning against the hearth keeping a watchful eye on everything at once. After a moment she shrugged her shoulders as if giving in to something and said, "I guess that will have to do."

     "I'll get it prepared for you right away, it may take a while, as you can see I have a full house tonight." The barkeep gestured over her shoulder with a tilt of his head, indicating Akira, "Is that yer friend over there, the one with the strange cap?"

     Shaldrissa answered in the affirmative without looking back.

     He grunted and placed the mug on a shelf behind the bar. He then placed both hands on the surface of the bar and leaned in closer the Shaldrissa. "You make sure he doesn't cause any trouble, or he's out of 'ere."

     Shaldrissa leaned back to avoid the stench of the man's breath. "You just make your patrons behave themselves and he won't," she shot back. "Because I guarantee he will be the last man standing." She smiled at the look of consternation on his face, "Can you have two meals prepared for us while we wait? Thank you." Without waiting for a reply she turned away to thread her way through the cluster of occupied tables to Akira across the room. She had meant what she said the barkeep. She had no doubt that Akira could take on any man in this room, maybe even all of them at once. She had never seen a man move so fast and strike with such decisive force as Akira had back in the forest. It was almost supernatural. But for some reason she did not fear him. She felt it deep in her soul that he would honestly protect against anything that would come to harm her.

     Akira straightened as Shaldrissa approached. She saw that he had loosed the chinstrap of his hat and it now hung down his back. The missing hat revealed jet-black hair that was pulled tightly back into a topknot at the crown of his head.

     She explained the room situation, which Akira took in stride.

     "Well, there's nothing we can do about it so we might as well make the best of it," he said lamely.

     Shaldrissa gestured to a recently vacated table. They settled into the straight-backed chairs. A pregnant silence loomed between them for a few long moments until Shaldrissa spoke.

     "Well, you don't look from around these parts," she began, "so where are you from?"

     Akira looked down at the tabletop for a moment. He fidgeted uncomfortably in his chair, not sure how to answer.

     "I'm sorry," Shaldrissa said, seeing his distress, "I didn't mean to pry."

     "No, it's all right," Akira waved away her apology. He took a deep breath then met her hazel eyes. "I come from Tokuran, a land far south of this continent, across the Crystal Sea."

     "Tokuran," she repeated the name, like she was seeing how the word tasted in her mouth. "I think I have read about it. I didn't think your people came this far north."

     "We don't," he replied curtly. "I came to be here on," he paused, searching for the right words, "extenuating circumstances." He then tore his eyes away from hers, as if to say he did not want to talk of it further.

     She opened her mouth to say more but closed it again when a serving maid approached their table with two steaming plates of roasted pork and warm bread. Akira placed two coins from a cache he had confiscated from the dead mercenaries in the wench's waiting hand, after which she left without a word.

     Akira watched as Shaldrissa started tearing into her meal with a luster he would have thought impossible from the woman. He looked at his own plate and decided the succulent meat soaked in gravy did look very delicious. But his appetite disappeared suddenly, replace with a melancholy longing. Talking to Shaldrissa of Tokuran brought many memories to mind, some happy, mostly unhappy.

     Mostly he thought of his disgraceful departure from his homeland that he cherished so deeply. He could never go back there again, as much as that thought pained him. His dreams were haunted by the beautiful rolling plains he used to ride his horse through, the wind whipping his unbound hair out behind him and smelling the fresh air that seemed so much cleaner and more pure than the air in this foreign realm. But the image that haunted him most, the one thing he could not shake from his subconscious's vision was the face of Arashi.

     In his dreams her mesmerizing green eyes were always looking at his with a look of anguish and betrayal in them. He wished he could have seen her one last time, to tell her that he loved her and he was sorry.

     "What's that you have there?" a voice penetrated his thoughts. He looked up and saw Shaldrissa staring at him, waiting for a reply.

     He looked back down at his hand. Apparently while he was thinking back on times past he had absent-mindedly pulled a small blade from his wide belt and started twirling it in his fingers. The blade was finger thick, leaf shaped and as long as his palm. The blade and the handle were molded as one with the handle part wrapped in leather.

     "This is what my people call a shuriken," Akira explained. "It's a handy throwing weapon."

     "How good are you with it?" Shaldrissa asked.

     "I may not be as good as those men playing darts over there," Akira indicated the toward the back of the inn where a group of patrons were involved in a dart throwing game, "but I can hold my own."

     The barkeep approached their table just then and informed the pair that the room was ready and gave Shaldrissa the key and told her it was the third room on the left. She thanked him and they left their table to make their way to the stairs.

     The stairway was long, steep, and narrow, wide enough for only one person to climb at once. The boards were in need of repair and squeaked with every step. The stairs opened up to a wide hallway lined with doors on either wall. Shaldrissa approached the third door on the left and inserted the key in the lock and opened the door.

     They entered the room and Akira closed the door behind him after checking down the either way of the passage. He turned to investigate the room. It wasn't very large but it would do. It was six paces from the door to the opposite wall and ten paces long. There was a fair sized bed on against the right hand wall and desk table with two chairs against the left wall. A large, moderately clean, run took up much of the floor space. There was a window on the opposite wall of the door with slatted, rickety shutters. Candles on the bed stands and a lantern on the table lighted the room.

     Akira crossed the room to open the shutters and peer out the window. Night had fallen like a blanket over the town. Light, like fallen stars, shown through windows. He looked down upon the street and saw that the wall of the inn was flat and sheet. It would be very difficult for an intruder to scale that surface. He closed the shutters, latched them firmly, and turned back to Shaldrissa.

     "Now that we have moment of peace," he began, "maybe you can tell me why those men wanted to harm you."

     She hesitated for an instant. She wasn't sure if she wanted to tell this man the whole story, or any part of the story for that matter. If he discovered the truth it would just scare him away, then she would be all alone to face the shadows and what lurked within them.

     She looked up and caught Akira's eyes. Those eyes of liquid steel, like steel they could be hard and unyielding but at times could still show compassion and tenderness. Presently, they offered portions of both aspects. Akira wanted to show compassion for her but at the same time wanted to be tough so he could get answers from her. But in that moment their eyes met, for some reason, all her apprehension to telling him her story simply disappeared. She felt that she could trust this man with her life. He had certainly proved that so far.

     "Those mercenaries were under employ of a man named Talgoth," she began breathlessly, as if she had been holding her breath for the past few minutes. "Talgoth is a sorcerer who resides somewhere in the Sorlak Mountains. He wishes to possess my sister and I."

     "Why?" Asked Akira simply, now seated in one of the straight-backed chairs, leaning his elbows on his knees, his sword propped between his legs.

     Shaldrissa reached to her collar and pulled it down to reveal the strange mark Akira had noticed earlier. It looked like a birthmark but it was more intricate designed. There was something archaic about it, ancient, magical.

     "This mark is spoken of in a prophecy. It read something like twin children will be born under a lunar eclipse and they will bear the mark of the Stars and will grow to be powerful beings. My sister and I both are burdened with this mark.

     "We were born to a farmer and his wife and lived happily through our childhood on a our father's farm. A family friend lived their as well, Dirvel. Yes, my body guard from the woods. He taught my sister and I how to read and write.

     "One day, when we were teenagers, marauders attacked our farm. They slew my parents and destroyed our home. Dirvel was able to get us to safety. It was then that he revealed to us that he was part of a secret brotherhood who built their whole beliefs around the prophecy. They knew all along that my mother would be the one to bare my sister and I into this world. Dirvel was planted there to look after us." Her eyes began welling up as she thought of her parents again. She could remember hearing her mother scream as the bandits ravished and then slew her.

     "Dirvel took us to a temple in mountains that were not far from our invaded farm. There we met more of this brotherhood and they began to teach in the ways of spell craft, hoping to fulfill the prophecy. My sister seemed the grasp the material much quicker than I and she started to outdistance me in power.

     "All was well until a strange man came calling one night, about six months ago. This man demanded to see the twins who bare the mark of the Stars. The priests denied him. This man was Talgoth the sorcerer. If he could not obtain what he wanted through demands than he would take through sheer force. He started working his foul black magic and began massacring the whole of the temple in search of his goal.

     "The always faithful Dirvel assembled a handful of his fellow priests and they secreted my sister and I out of the temple, escaping the wrath of Talgoth. Once we had traveled a good distance from the temple, Dirvel decided it was best if we split up. My sister went with three priests and they head east. Dirvel and two other priests took me and we made our way west.

     "During our trek, Dirvel disclosed to me that it was Talgoth who ordered the raid on my family's farm. He also told me not to use my powers; that would only attract Talgoth's attention to me."

     "How did Talgoth find you at the farm in the first place?" Akira interrupted.

     "Dirvel said he divined it through astrology. The stars can tell many secrets. At least that is what he told me.

     "It wasn't long until Talgoth's minions found us. One by one the priests fell until only Dirvel and I were left. Talgoth seemed to have eyes and ears everywhere."

     "Why does Talgoth want you so bad?" Akira asked, leaning forward intently as he listened to her story unfold.

     "If he can get both of us, my sister and I, together he can perform some demoniac ritual that will grant him great power. Enough power to be a scourge to this land and bring its people to their knees to worship him as a king. A god even." She said this with all seriousness and Akira could see the fear in her quivering unhindered in her eyes. "I can only hope my sister in still safe."

     "Why do you need to go to Thuvia?" Akira asked.

     "Thuvia is the place Dirvel designated we would meet with my sister. There is another group of the secret brotherhood there that could shelter us. My sister should be there already. . . if nothing has happened to her."

     More tears slid down her cheeks at the thought of harm coming to her sister. She sat on the end of her bed now, seemingly exhausted but at the same time relieved to have the story out in the open finally.

     Akira had taken the whole story in and was sitting in the chair contemplating. If this story were true it could mean dire consequences for the Mythalon, even his homeland of Tokuran if this sorcerer became too powerful. He had to be stopped. But could Akira handle this monumental task? Did he even want to handle it?

     Looking at Shaldrissa now, with tears streaming down her face, he could not help but take pity with her. She and her sister could be the catalyst to the destruction of the world. That was no small burden to bare on such slim shoulders. He felt compelled to help her ease that burden and take some of it himself.

     Akira stood up and walked over to her. He knelt on his knee, placing his hands on her shaking shoulders, and looked straight into her eyes. "If this Talgoth is as maniacal as you say he is, then I will do everything in my power to protect you," he said this with a conviction Shaldrissa had not even heard in the pledges of the oath bound Dirvel.

     "Thank you," was all Shaldrissa could say before she threw her arms around Akira's neck and sobbed into his chest. Akira, taken aback by her emotion, could only hold her tenderly.

     When the lights were extinguished from the second story window a form melted from the shadows of the alley. The figure was made of pure darkness, a living shadow darker than the deepest bowels of a person's nightmare.

     Rul stared up at the window with his eldritch eyes. There, in that room, his prey lay sleeping; unaware of the doom she so feared would befall her this evening.

     He stretched his shadowy arms out to the side and lifted off the ground. He floated up to the window he had been watching most of the dark night. Through the slats of the shutters his insubstantial body melted. Once through he reformed into the shape of a man but with no distinguishing features except for two burning eyes. Those eyes now swept the room with their devilish light.

     The woman his master coveted was in the bed sound asleep. She was attired in a simple white shift. He started at the outline of a figure sitting in a chair across from the bed. He soon relaxed, realizing the man was asleep as well. This man must be the one his master warned him of.

     He turned back to the young woman. He waved his hand over her face, whispering an incantation that would put her in a deep slumber, dreaming of fanciful things that girls her age dream. He then proceeded to lift her from the bed with arms made of darkness. He turned toward the window when a voice rooted him to the spot.

     "Put her down," Akira warned, "if you know what's good for you."

     Rul turned to him, the girl still in his arms, "If you value your life you would stay out of this." His voice was like a harsh whisper, speaking though there was not mouth to speak from.

     "I've been told that a lot lately," remarked Akira, seemingly unperturbed with this unnatural being that had somehow crept into the room without a sound. "Unhand her, fiend, and I won't be forced to kill you."

     Rul let a hiss escape from his non-existent lips and lashed out at Akira. One of his arms seemed to grow and thicken, drawing upon the shadows of the room. The arm shot out at Akira, the attack too swift and Akira had no time to avoid it. The shadow appendage struck him with such force he was lifted from his feet. He slammed against the wall, splintering the boards, then fell to the floor.

     The arm of darkness retracted and Rul threw open the window, shattering the slats and breaking one side off its hinges entirely. Through all this Shaldrissa stayed asleep as if dead. Rul leapt through the broken window and floated lightly to the ground below. He sped down the alley, levitating above the surface like a patch of black fog rolling off a bay.

     Akira shook the stars from his vision and surged to his feet, scooped up his sword, and shot headfirst through the window. Executing a somersault in mid-air he landed on his feet in the alley, unfazed by the two-story drop from the window. He spotted a black floating cloud that was darker than any of the shadows night could produce turn left at the end of the alley. He wasted no time and sprinted after it.

     He made the corner in time to see the shadow being round another turn, this time to the right. Akira knew he would not be able to catch the creature like this. He needed another vantage point. He searched the street he was on desperately, looking for something. There, at the corner the wraith baring Shaldrissa took were some crates stacked on top of each other under a low balcony of a two-story building

     Tucking his sword into his belt, he raced for the crates, taking them in a single tigerish bound and swinging up onto the balcony. The balcony was on the second story and all it took was a quick scramble to reach the roof. Akira was then speeding across the roof in the direction he saw the shadow go, hoping that he had not lost it during his climb.

     The buildings being arranged close together and a small leap was all it took to cross the gap between them. Akira was almost across the second rooftop when he saw a patch of darkness moving down the street. The creature was floating down a large thoroughfare with merchant stalls lining the street on either side. He was gaining on it. Carrying the burden of Shaldrissa must be slowing it down.

     A bright, unnatural blue light caught his eye. At the end of the street burned a door shaped portal with a shimmering, mirror-like surface. That was probably the means with which the shadow arrived in the town and the way it wished to leave. The creature was heading straight for it. Akira had to stop it before it reached the portal.

     He saw his chance. Just ahead was a low single story building, in front of which was a merchant's awning. He was running even with Shaldrissa's abductor at the moment. He delved deep inside himself to find the strength and the power to surge ahead. He lowered his head and pumped his legs as hard as he possibly could to gain some distance.

     The edge of the roof raced to meet Akira and he vaulted over it without slowing.

     Rul saw the glowing opening his master had conjured for him at the end of the street. He was glad for it, for his strength was waning. Having to carry the girl and keeping his shadow form while racing for the portal was taxing his power. It wasn't so much that the girl was heavy, but keeping that part of his body substantial enough to support her was pushing his abilities to the limit.

     He did not know why he was rushing through the streets of the town though. He was sure the blow he delivered to the girl's bodyguard should have incapacitated a normal man. There was no way he could have recovered quickly enough to give chase. But some foreboding feeling in his subconscious kept him from slowing.

     Rul was only fifty yards from the portal when a small figure shot out of the shadows from his right and skidded to a halt in the middle of the street. Moonlight glinted from the steel of the curved sword in the man's hands.

     No, thought Rul, it couldn't be him. His glowing eyes burned brighter as he leaned forward and charged at the man barring his path. Rul mistakenly assumed the way he was holding the girl that her protector would not risk striking at him for fear of injuring her.

     Rul rushed toward Akira and to Rul's surprise the foreigner assaulted with his wickedly sharp blade. The attack was aimed with remarkable precision on the opposite side of Rul's body than the girl. The glimmering steel sheered through the tenuous mass of shadow. The darkness parted, like cloth being slashed, then curiously melted back together as though the sword had never touched it.

     Akira stared horrifically at the ineffectual blade then back at the shadow creature and scarcely ducked under the swipe of its arm. Akira attacked again, aiming for what would be a normal man's legs, only to encounter the same result. His blade passed through the living shadow with no effect.

     Those burning eyes stared down at Akira, and he could tell they were mocking his futile attempts at harming the creature. Akira lashed out again, only this time at those incessantly glowing embers. The eyes seemed to widen a fraction in shock and the creature lurched out of range of the flashing blade. That must be your weakness, Akira thought to himself. He could only get a clean attack at the eyes.

     Rul became nervous now. The swordsman made repeated attacks aimed at his head. Each slash, each swipe, was narrowly evaded as Rul flowed his way around so that he was between the man and the magical doorway. So intent on making a killing blow that the swordsman did not note his true intentions until it was too late.

     Akira raised his sword over his head, gripped in both hands and brought it down upon the monster's head. Before the blow could land, Akira's arms were halted in mid-swing. The creature's arm snaked out like a striking cobra and engulfed his fists with unnatural strength. The arm lifted Akira as if he was a child's doll and slung him into a merchant's stall. He collided with a wooden pole than supported the awning and the whole stall came crashing down around him.

     Rul took advantage from the momentary reprieve and lunged for the portal. He unceremoniously flung the girl through first, and, with a glance back at his attacker, leapt through himself. Just as he penetrates the mirror-like surface he glimpses the man getting to his feet.

     Akira clambered out of the wreckage of the stall in time to see the shadow creature enter the shimmering door. He hastened to it. Thoughts raced through Akira's mind in that instant. Should he follow into the unkown again, this time he could end up anywhere? Why risk his life again, especially against unnatural foes like that wraith? All these questions and more screamed at him but only one dominated the rest. He had sworn an oath to help and protect Shaldrissa. He could not forsake that oath no matter what the danger. He had to see this through to the end or else he would have to put up his sword forever.

     As he approached it began collapsing in on itself. Akira dashed to get through but his foot was tangled in something. The awning from the stall had wrapped itself around his ankle. The door was getting smaller, becoming half its original size now, and he cursed. He lashed out with his sword and cut cleanly through the cloth.

     The door was even smaller now, no bigger than a window. Akira rocketed toward it and sprang to the air the last few yards. He dove headfirst into the portal that was only a small porthole. Just as his feet made it through the hole snapped shut and the light winked out, leaving no evidence that it was ever there.

     Talgoth paced impatiently in front of the shimmering portal, his hands crossed in the billowing sleeves of his ornate robe, awaiting the return of his agent, Rul. He resided in one of the middle floors of his tower. The energy of the portal was confined in the frame of an obsidian mirror. The only way for the difficult spell to succeed is with a mirror surface.

     The sorcerer had sent the shadow acolyte through the gate hours ago it seemed. In reality it had only been one hour if not only a half hour. The tension in Talgoth mounted after each passing minute until it seemed he would explode from it.

     A warbling sound emitted from the pulsating door, signaling a passenger through the lines of time and space. Talgoth halted his pacing upon hearing the sound and stood facing the gate a few paced back.

     A languid form wrapped in white punctured the swirling, shimmering barrier of the door and rolled to Talgoth's feet. Mere moments later Rul, in the form of a flesh and blood man, passed through the gate.

     "You must close it now!" Exclaimed Rul breathlessly before Talgoth could say anything. "He is surely following on my heels, master, you must close the gate before he makes it through!"

     "Of whom do you speak?" Demanded Talgoth impatiently.

     "The girl's bodyguard," answered Rul, sweat glistening upon his tallow skull. "He fought me every step of the way to the gate. I was able to subdue him momentarily so I could escape with the girl. But he seemed very tenacious."

     "So you assume he will follow you through?" Talgoth asked as he stepped up to the shining portal. He pulled back his sleeves and clasped his hands together, intertwining his fingers in a peculiar fashion.

     "I am not positive, master. I saw him recover quickly from a mighty blow and he seemed intent on following."

     Talgoth ignored his servant's reply, already muttering archaic phrases long lost to history. Once he uttered the last syllable the door vanished with a flash and a thunderclap. "There, it is done."

     "You closed it in time?" Rul asked timidly.

     "If the fool actually followed, he will arrive in the deepest bowels of this tower," Talgoth said, trying unsuccessfully to hide a grim smile.

     Rul cocked his head to the side like a confused dog, then understanding dawned behind his glowing eyes and he shared his master's smile.

     Talgoth's countenance became serious once more and he turned to the crumpled form on the floor. "Well done, Rul. My ascension is almost at hand. Take her to the observatory." With that he turned with a fluttering of his voluminous robes and departed to prepare for the ritual.

     As Akira entered the magical portal he felt as if his body was being torn asunder. His vision was bombarded with flashing lights that looked liked planets and stars as he was propelled with unerring speed through the cosmos.

     After what seemed an eternity he burst into what he knew as the real world and tumbled across a hard stone floor. He lay still, fighting down the nausea that boiled in his stomach and threatened to rise through his throat. His vision swam with stars.

     The dizziness and nausea passed momentarily and Akira sat upright, his sword still clutched in his hand. He regarded his surroundings. There was no sign of Shaldrissa or the shadow creature. He was in a dark, dank circular room, which spanned fifty paces in diameter and the ceiling was lost to shadows. Torches that flickered in an unearthly way were ensconced at the four compass points. There was a large oak door, bound in metal, located under one of the torches. Scattered around the room were piles of bones. Upon closer inspection, Akira found to his revulsion that the bones once belonged to humans. He also noted deep gash marks on the stone floor, as if great claws had been scraped against it.

     At the sight of these marks, Akira's hackles stood on end and his danger sense screamed at him to quit this room this instant. The need to find and rescue Shaldrissa encroached on his mind like a parasite. He made his way, quickly but warily, to the large oak door. As he approached he discovered there was no handle or knob or anything that could be used to open the door. He pushed at it vainly and it did not budge, as expected.

     As Akira placed his hand to his chin to contemplate his escape, there came from behind him the rasping sound of grinding stone. A low growling and snorting sound accompanied it. A chill like a drop of cold water seeped down his spine. He turned slowly face whatever challenge that was being set before him.

     He was ill prepared for what he found. His breath caught in his throat sweat broke out on his brow at the sight of the horror that stalked forth from the shadows of the hidden alcove a secret door revealed.

     The abhorrent beast was an abomination that did not belong in this world; a mutation brought into existence by vile sorcery. It towered taller than a grizzly bear standing upright and was broader than an ox at the shoulders. It was wrapped in a tough leathery hide. Its reversed bent legs were short compared to its torso but stout as tree trunks and ended in thick, razor claws. The torso was long and bore four arms, one pair were long, mighty arms, the other pair were shorter, slimmer appendages that looked almost human. There was no apparent neck, the head just molding up from the chest. No discernible eyes could be found, although there were two sensory nodes where eyes should have been. The abyssal maw was lined with small, pointed teeth that presently gnashed together, preparing to rend the human flesh that stood before it.

     Akira overcame his dread and repugnance and raised his sword, which seemed like a child's toy dagger in the presence of the hulking fiend. He prepared for the mightiest battle of his life.

     The behemoth belched out a coughing roar and lowered to all fours; the long pair of arms reaching the ground. It huffed like a bull then launched with its stout legs into a fearsome charge.

     Shaldrissa was running; running from formless, shapeless darkness. She was so petrified, tears rolling down her cheeks. She felt so alone and the darkness was reaching out with wispy appendages that were strong as a bear's embrace.

     Then, just up ahead, she saw Akira. He was waiting for her with his arms outstretched. She collapsed into those arms, sobbing into his chest, knowing that he would keep her safe.

     "Don't be afraid," Akira said soothingly. "It will be over soon and Talgoth will reign supreme."

     Gooseflesh broke out all over her body. She looked up from Akira's chest and shrilled in terror. Akira's face had turned from the handsome man she knew and trusted into a grisly, decaying, fleshless skull. His arms that were wrapped about her had deteriorated to bleach bones and were cold and lifeless against her flesh.

     She tried desperately to break free of the hold those groping bones had on her but to no avail. The darkness was fast approaching and was soon to engulf and consume her. She looked to the sky, in an attempt to appease to the gods for help, and let out a blood-curdling scream.

     She awoke with a start to find herself free of the skeleton's cold embrace and instead in the grip of simple manacles. Her wrists were bound above her head and she was lying upright on a slab of marble. The stone was cold on her back through the thin dress she wore. It reminded her of the skeletal arms from the dream that felt so real.

     She looked about the room she was in and discovered a circular chamber that was lit only by a few braziers and the blue moonlight. She looked up to see the ceiling was open to the night air and dark clouds were roiling about ominously.

     She looked to her left and saw another marble slab; similar to the one she was shackled to, standing upright next to her. Upon this stone was another girl, her head resting on her chest and her auburn hair hiding her face. She stirred and lifted her head up. The hair fell away, like a curtain parting, and revealed features identical to Shaldrissa's own. A mark, precisely like hers, blemished the right side of her neck.

     Recognition fluttered through Shaldrissa's hazy mind and she started, pulling against her restraints. "Natasia," she whispered hoarsely. She didn't know why she whispered, only that it seemed unwise to attract any undue attention to her in this foreboding chamber. "Natasia, wake up!"

     A groan escaped her twin sister's lips and her eyes flitted open. Those eyes locked with Shaldrissa's identical orbs. A look of joy flashed in Natasia's eyes that reached her smile, then was quickly wiped away by despair.

     "He captured you, too," Natasia stated somberly. "All is lost now."

     "You can't give up hope, sister," Shaldrissa consoled. "We might still find a way out of this."

     "How are we going to do that?" Natasia asked incredulously.

     "I don't know," Shaldrissa replied meekly. "But we have to think of something. We can't let Talgoth ascend. It would mean the end of life on Mythalon."

     Her sister did not respond and looked away.

     Shaldrissa tried desperately to come up with a plan. She did not know how she came to be here or even where here was. If she and her sister were in the hands of Talgoth then that would put them in the Sorlak Mountains. But how could that be? She was in the town of Omir last she remembered, and that was thousands of miles of the foreboding mountain range.

     Then a thought came to her. Akira. Where was Akira? She hoped that he had not been killed by Talgoth's agents. But she did not see him and had no idea where he was. Suddenly her heart sank and her stomach lurched. Akira, she felt, had been her only real salvation from this nightmare. For some reason she knew that Akira would protect her, keep her safe. But now here she was, trapped by the man she had been running from all these years. Trapped without the one man who might stand a chance against the demented sorcerer.

     The sound of a door swinging open brought the sisters' heads up. Talgoth glided into the chamber. He was garbed in a sleeveless silk tunic of blood red that exposed his scrawny arms. A long, flowing skirt dyed deep green covered his legs and concealed his sandaled feet. His bald head was adorned with an elaborate headdress made of volcanic obsidian and yellow gold. A large, multi-faceted emerald that glinted in the moonlight was set in the headband, centered with his forehead.

     Following Talgoth was his ever-present servant Rul. He was attired as usual in his black mantle. His head was bowed as he trailed his master in and then skulked off to the side.

     Talgoth stopped in front of the sisters and steepled his fingers together, the long nails scraping together, "Tonight, your journeys end here and a new journey begins for me," stated Talgoth. "You two should be proud for you are the conduits for which my god, Tor'Deik, will bless me with his power. I will pave the way for his coming. It's just a shame you will not be able to witness the momentous event. With the power that will course through your bodies there is no way for you to survive." His skeletal face cracked into a smile, displaying his dirty yellow teeth.

     The girls stared tight-lipped and defiantly back at the sorcerer. Natasia shook with barely contained outrage but did not want to give Talgoth the pleasure of a retort.

     Their silence was gratitude enough for Talgoth. He clapped his hands together, "Let us begin." Lightning flashed and thunder rolled across the sky as if signaling the commencement of the ritual.

     Rul was at Talgoth's back in an instant and helped the sorcerer out of his tunic, exposing his emaciated torso. Upon his chest was ghastly brand. It was an archaic design from a bygone era. Shaldrissa recognized it from her studies at the temple. It was the symbol of Tor'Deik, the demon god of hate.

     Talgoth raised his rawboned arms to the whirling heavens and commenced bellowing in a guttural voice an obscene language that human lips should never utter. Lightning illuminated the sky more frequently and each peal of thunder made Shaldrissa start on her slap of stone, as if each one was her death knell.

     The sky above became a vortex punctuated by purple lightning. The eye of the vortex opened to reveal a hellish sky that was on fire. Shaldrissa could not contain herself any longer. She shrill scream escaped her throat.

     Akira dove to his right with the supple quickness of a panther, rolling out of the way of the onrushing monstrosity. The large beast could not stop its momentum and careened into the door. The heavy door shook visibly but held firm. The monster wheeled toward Akira, seemingly unfazed by the jarring impact with the door.

     It came at him again, but this time more steadily instead of charging headlong. Akira shuffled backwards then leapt back as a considerably sized fist came rocketing down at him. He narrowly avoided the strike and the fist smote the floor, sending stone chips flying.

     The fiend kept that arm planted to the ground and used it as support to swing his legs around. The move caught Akira by surprise; the attack came so suddenly and with a quickness that belied the monster's size. The clawed feet impacted on his chest; Akira having enough time to roll with the kick. He careened through the air and landed hard onto the ground.

     The wind was knocked from him but he struggled to his feet hastily. His tunic fell in tatters, the claws of the feet having hooked onto it. He had no time to catch his breath as the beast fell on again, swinging those huge arms with overwhelming force. Akira danced back, avoiding the blows just barely, each successive swipe coming closer to mangling him.

     An opportunity presented itself and Akira pounced on it like a striking viper. The beast's left arm came around in a wide arc, fingers splayed, attempting to seize Akira in its mighty paw. Akira crouched low and struck with his sword, the sharp steel cleaving through two fingers. The monster howled more in rage than in pain. Akira spun like a dancer, adding momentum to his next swing, and flayed the side of the creature. The hide was stout but yielded to the keen edge of his blade. Black ichor oozed from the wound in its side and from the missing fingers. The smell assaulted Akira's nose and he almost retched.

     Akira was behind the monster now. It whirled, attacking with its impaired hand. Akira ducked under the blow, moving like a tempest and delivered another slash to the creature's abdomen. The blade cut deep and Akira felt the jarring impact of hitting bone, but the sword continued unhindered. The thick ichor sprayed out in a torrent and splashed the across the floor. The beast roared again, but with a different timbre than before. It sounded in pain.

     The beast faltered to its knees, reeling from the mortal blow Akira had delivered. Akira moved with great celerity and scrambled up the back of the behemoth. The monster reared, trying to dislodge him. Akira held on fiercely. He was perched over the beast's head and, while holding on with one hand, raised his sword with another and plunged the blade into one of the sensory nodes atop the creature's head. The node popped like an enormous blister and black ichor splattered Akira.

     The monster roared in anguish and redoubled its efforts to swat Akira off of it. Akira withdrew the sword then drove it into the other node. A beefy hand was descending on him and he lunged off the beast and rolled to feet on solid ground.

     The monster was now effectively blinded and it roared in pain and frustration. It staggered on its reversed bent legs, groping the air with its four arms.

     Akira realized he was in front of the unyielding door. He started to stamp his feet and yell to the beast, trying to draw its attention. Whether it heard his cries or felt the vibration from his stomping feet, the creature turned toward Akira.

     All the pain was shoved aside for the moment as the monster found the source of his torment. It bellowed an angry cry and charged headlong at Akira. He lunged out of the way of the raving mad creature. It slammed headfirst into the door. The impact broke the door from its hinges and it toppled outward with the monstrosity falling upon it. The collision with the ground billowed out a cloud of dust, filling Akira's mouth and stinging his eyes.

     Akira approached the threshold guardedly. The behemoth appeared to be unmoving. He passed through the opening and crept around the motionless mass. He saw that the creature bashed its own brains in with the impact and the head was bent at an awkward angle. He exhaled audibly and sagged against the demolished door frame. That creature was mightier than the ogres he had faced in Tokuran.

     Outside the monster's lair stretched a curving passage in either direction. After catching his breath, Akira chose to go right, moving on cat's paws. The hallway seemed to follow to curve of a tower or similar structure. He momentarily came upon an archway that led to a set of spiraling stairs made of a curious black stone that was swallowed by shadows as he gazed up. The only way to go was up and Akira began ascending the steps. He sincerely hoped he would not come upon another one of those monsters. He steeled his nerves and kept moving, drawing from pools of endurance he did not know he had. He felt magic thick in the air and knew that something monumental was taking place.

     As he scaled the steps he heard thunder growling from the other side of the walls that encased the stair. It seemed interminable, booming frequently, making the walls tremble with its close proximity. A feeling of dread washed over Akira and he doubled his pace, bounding up the stairs two at a time.

     Rain had begun to fall through the opening in the ceiling. It started with a few drops then grew into a torrential downpour. It drenched the girls on the stone slabs, assailing them like an ancient torture device.

     Talgoth stood, reveling in the eternal showers, continuing to utter the appalling language. The rain glistened luridly on the sandpaper flesh of his exposed upper body. The brand flashing wickedly in the lightning. His tawny eyes glared up at the unfolding heavens with a virulent gleam to them.

     As Talgoth appeared to be approaching a lusty crescendo to his incantations, a fiery column of ensorcelled energy descended from the hole in the whirling vortex. It shone red like the dawning sun and rumbled like a volcano. It splintered into two separate paths that struck the marble slabs, consuming the two sisters. They wailed in unison and their birth marks burned brightly, brighter even than the torrid energy that enveloped them.

     Bright, white beams burst from the chests of the sisters, racing to merge with Talgoth. The beams angled toward the large emerald nestled in his headdress. The jewel was struck by the beams, which pulsated like writhing tentacles, drawing the life force from the sisters. The emerald blazed lambently as it drank the souls of the girls, soaking in their very essence.

     A pallid glow started to form around Talgoth's body, outlining him, palpitating with the growing energy being fed to him from the sacrifices. He could feel great power flowing through him, merging with his body and black soul in the most exquisite of matings. He laughed balefully, his slim, bony shoulders shaking with the effort. His years of planning and waiting are finally coming to fruition. His god had answered him and was rewarding him with the ultimate prize for his faithfulness.

     The sisters continued to howl as they were slowly dying. Shaldrissa felt powerless, her body getting weaker as the seconds passed. She felt as if time had been accelerated and she was rapidly growing old. The power that engulfed her was leeching the life from her and her sister and there was absolutely nothing she could do about it. The feeling of hope that Akira would come was torn away like a leaf in a hurricane and was replaced by a succumbing futility that numbed her mind.

     Akira heard a mighty rumbling that could not be attributed to the thunder. Following the rumble was a keening wail. Both sounds seemed to originate from the top of the winding stair. He was almost to the top, his breathing coming in ragged breaths from the long climb.

     At the head of the stair there was a door set into a tall arch. It stood partly ajar and a rainbow of multi-colored lights flickered through the opening. The screaming had subsided to infrequent cries, but a haughty laughter came unbidden to Akira's ears.

     He thundered through the doorway and skidded to a halt on the rain soaked tiles of the floor. There, across the room from him, stood Shaldrissa and another girl who looked identical to Shaldrissa, chained to marble slabs. They were enveloped by a weird energy and looked half dead. There bodies looked deteriorated and shriveled. Between him and the girls was a gaunt figure with an elaborate headdress. The figure was radiating with magical energy. This was undoubtedly the evil sorcerer Talgoth.

     Talgoth turned at the sound of the door slamming against the wall. His eyes blazed at the sight of the intruder. Then a venomous sneer widened on his hawkish face. With the flickering lights playing across his features and with that smile he looked like a devil from the pits of Hell.

     "I will not waste an ounce of my limitless power on a gnat such as yourself," the sorcerer snickered.

     Just then Akira felt a presence behind him and tried to defend himself but he was too late. A crushing blow was delivered to his back and sprawled to tiles, sliding across the floor. He rolled to his feet, raising his sword to ward against the foe. His face showed the signs of grinding against the floor.

     The shadowy form was upon him like an animated blanket, covering him in its dark embrace. Akira's world turned to black and blows assailed him from every direction. His body was pulled this way and that; his limbs were tweaked at unnatural angles. Just when he thought he would succumb to unconsciousness he was ejected from the darkness like being chewed up by a shark and then spit back out again.

     He thudded against a wall and slid to the ground, bruised and battered. One of his eyes was swollen shut but the other could plainly see the two eldritch eyes staring at him from across the room.

     Akira used the wall for support as he stood up. His hand slipped subtly into his belt and his fingers pinched something between them. A low, raspy chuckle emanated from the wraith and it started to creep forward. Akira smiled a lopsided grin with swollen lips. His hand then flicked out like a striking cobra and a glint of metal flashed through the air.

     The shuriken Akira threw scythed through the space between him and the shadow, striking true. The small blade shattered through one of the blazing eyes. The shadow creature reeled back and let loose a blaring screech that grated on Akira's nerves. Both of those shining eyes fractured apart and a stream of whirling energy escaped through the air and out the opening in the ceiling. The body of darkness scattered apart and dissipated.

     Talgoth wheeled at the sound of the ear-splitting shriek. His eyes narrowed at Akira, outrage simmering in their depths.

     Akira charged the mad sorcerer, raising his sword for a deathblow. Talgoth merely waved his hand in front of him, as if wagging away a fly, and Akira was picked from the ground by ghost fingers and flung against a wall with bone breaking force.

     "It is time I end you, worm," spat Talgoth, stepping closer. The glow still pulsated around him and the emerald blazed brighter than ever. The tendrils of essence were still feeding power to it from the sisters. Talgoth raised his bony hand and crackling lightning shot forth from his fingers. The sputtering whips encircled Akira and electricity surged through his body.

     Akira jerked with every jolt that coursed through his body and threatened to boil his insides. Agony was etched on his face but he continued to stand defiantly. Talgoth laughed maniacally at the twitching form before him. Akira gripped his sword with convulsing fingers and cleared his mind. His eyes close, he gathered all his inner strength, what his people call chi, the power of his soul and focused that supernatural energy.

     The blade of his sword began to glimmer and Akira directed his built up energy into the sword and one decisive strike. Talgoth ceased his laughter and stared oddly. He saw in his power warped vision lines of power streaking to the swordsman, building inside of him.

     With all the strength he had left, Akira slashed his sword through the air. An invisible wave of force rocketed from the blade and broke the electrical hold Talgoth had on him, the lightning dissipating with a crack. The wave streaked toward Talgoth. It struck him with mind numbing vigor and the emerald shattered to dust in a spray of blinding energy.

     Talgoth's eyes widened in horror and reached up to his forehead in disbelief at what just transpired. His fingers groped an empty socket where the jewel once was a moment ago and he cried out in anguish.

     Akira noticed the groping fingers started to widen and expand. Then the rest of Talgoth's body started to balloon outward. The energy he had extracted from the sisters was trying to push its way out. Without the jewel, Talgoth frail human vessel could not contain such immense power. His body continued to stretch with a rubbery sound, his clothes ripping at the seams. It expanded to the breaking point when finally it exploded in a shower of blood and bone. The energy escaped and returned into its rightful place in the bodies of Shaldrissa and her sister.

     The driving rain subsided, the lightning and thunder ceased, and the clouds closed over the hole in the heavens.

     Akira wiped fragments of the sorcerer off him and limped over to where girls were chained up. He swung his sword twice and the iron manacles fell to the floor. He laid the limp bodies of the sisters on the ground gently. They were breathing shallowly and their pulse was weak, but they were alive.

     Shaldrissa shot up with an audible intake of breath, startling Akira. Her eyes found Akira's and tears sprang to her eyes. She almost could not believe it. She had almost given up hope that she would be rescued. She cursed herself for doubting Akira. He looked like he had gone to Hell and back but he would survive. She herself had a splitting headached but she was just grateful to be alive.

     "I knew you would come for me," she exclaimed. She flung her arms around his neck and hugged him tightly to her. Akira held her in his shaking arms. "How can I ever repay you for saving our lives?"

     "Just find us a way out of here and we'll call it even," Akira said wearily but with a smile.

     "How did we get here in the first place?" Shaldrissa asked.

     "By some magical portal," Akira explained.

     A groan caught the attention of the pair and they looked over to see Natasia coming to. She sat up with a hand to her head.

     "Natasia, are you all right?" Shaldrissa asked her sister as she helped her up.

     "My head feels like it has been ripped apart and then pieced back together," she moaned painfully.

     "I know the feeling," Akira remarked.

     Shaldrissa introduced Akira to Natasia. "I suppose I have you to thank for stopping Talgoth?" Natasia said.

     "You suppose correctly. But we can save the pleasantries for later. Let's try and find a way out of this tower." Akira helped both the girls to their feet.

     "You say we came here by a magical portal," Shaldrissa inquired. "Then there must be some kind of focus, an item, probably a mirror, that Talgoth used to create it."

     "Of course," Natasia cut in. "If we can find that we might be able to use it for ourselves."

     "You two can work the magic?" asked Akira. "I would think after what you have just been through you would be too exhausted to try any sort of sorcery."

     "If both of us combine our powers we should be able to accomplish making a dimensional doorway," Natasia answered confidently. She appeared to be recovering from the effects of the ritual rapidly.

     It took the better part of an hour to find the obsidian mirror. Akira waited patiently a few paces away while the sisters worked through the ceremony of enacting the spell. They finally succeeded and the mirror glowed with arcane power.

     Akira hoped they knew what they were doing and that they plotted the right course. He did not want to end up in the middle of the sea of a thousand feet underground. The sisters reassured him that the triple-checked their calculations and all was well. Nevertheless, Akira was still apprehensive as he stepped through the glittering mirror.

     The feeling of flying through the cosmos assaulted his senses again. He opened his eyes and he realized he was just oustide the town of Omir. On the same road he was on the day before, before he rushed off to save a damsel in distress. The sisters appeared beside him as they exited the portal.

     "So where will you go from here?" Akira asked the two girls.

     "We still plan on reaching Thuvia and the brotherhood," Shaldrissa answered. "You are welcome to come along if you like."

     Akira thought about it for a moment. Talgoth was dead and the threat to the world was averted. These girls should be safe to wander the land now, free of danger. But, he decided that Thuvia was as good a place as any to find work.

     "I would be honored to escort the both of you," Akira bowed ceremoniously. He looked somewhat ridiculous in his tattered pants and bare chest.

     The three walked up the path, the autumn sun beaming down on them with the promises of good fortune to come.

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