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If you haven't read the previous parts of the 'Chronicles', they are, in this order:
"Darkblade" (could be called a 'prologue', but not really part of the 'chronicles')
"Hunters" (part 1)
"Warriors" (part 2)
They aren't very good... but, read them first - it's easier that way, really!
One of the other ones was sanity, for this was a battle not of bodily strength, but mental. And the outcome was most uncertain.
Had it been a contest of physical matters, the one man standing against three opponents would stand little or no chance to win, for he was old and frail, whilst the three facing him - albeit all three seemed somewhat thin, too; perhaps a bit under-nourished - were young and strong.
An observer might, if looking closely, see the beads of sweat form on and drip from the three identical young faces. He would not see the same on the face of the older man, who is smiling faintly. He is obviously confident that his skills, if somewhat lesser than they once were, due to his considerable age, will hold out to the onslaught of mental energy poured from the three young men.
As most people know, what one thinks certain seldom is.
Yangour's smile tightened as the ones opposing him raised their hands and cast Foi fireballs at him. They never learn! he thought. He could easily survive any Foi technique, for even when used by someone as powerful as Yangour himself, the technique of fire was easily deflected. Three voices echoed, no one of them more than a tenth of a heartbeat after another:
Yangour withstood the three balls of orangeish red flame with an almost insolent ease, then called upon the winds in shape of the Nazan technique. A tornado-forced storm gathered around the trio, building in strength. The windblasts struck the men from all sides at once and faded away, only to be replaced by new blades of air that struck again from another direction. When at last the storm faded, Yangour sensed that he could finish them all with only one more attack. Weak fools! They were three, they were young, but look at them!
His smile faded as he saw them raise their hands again. Again, he could easily survive even the fireball conflagration brought by three Nafoi 'techs striking at the same spot at the exact same moment, and maybe seeing this might change the youngsters' minds. He might not have to kill them after all. Yangour disliked killing. It was too messy for his taste.
The familiar glow of fire surrounded the six raised hands. Yangour knew he was going to win. If they do not flee after seeing this attempt fail, he thought, I will kill them and be done with it.
The three mouths opened.
Go on, try me!
Three identical voices said, in unison; "NEOFOI!"
What?! He knew that there was only supposed to be three levels of fire technique strength: Foi, Gifoi and Nafoi. And, as three blindingly bright lances of white-hot fire tore through his chest and the world faded into eternal blackness, surprise and confusion was the last thing the ancient tech-master felt.
Neofoi! I was hit by a fourth level Foi tech- -
Maintenance systems are repaired by their cyborg keepers, for some of the independent, intelligent machines - the AIs - still remain, though hidden from Palman, Dezorian and Motavian eyes alike. But while Dark Force is yet sealed away and will remain so for another five hundred years, the hand of Darkness is always present, if weak - as is the darkness of the human race: greed, power-hunger and violence. And as always, such facets of the crystal that is the sentient mind, have their followers, of whom some - in some cases unwillingly and/or unwittingly - become tools of the Profund Darkness. Even without such, unnatural, aid, of course, intelligent beings are in themselves capable of cruelties. But then, they are also capable of caring. Kindness and cruelty are two things much different and much alike, just as love and hate. And when they come to conflict, the losses are high - but so are the prizes to be won. And one might never know, until it is too late, whether the prize, whether great or insignificant, was worth what you paid for it.
"Shane! Dark! We need your help - now! It's an emergency!"
The call, unexpected as it was, caused Shane, who was dozing in her bed, to fall out of that selfsame bed. Dark, on the top floor, seemed to experience something rather similar; she heard a thump and a curse, only partially muffled by the floor/ceiling (for Dark and Shane respectively) between them. Only a few seconds later, he came running down the stairs, sword in hand. He had not been asleep, it seemed, as he was still dressed.
"Where did that come from?"
"I don't know," Shane confessed. "We should go out and see."
Dark probably didn't hear her. He was already on his way out.
"Shane! Dark! We need -" The speaker was cut off in mid-sentence; probably because Dark had reached him. Shane, not much slower, was on her way, too, struggling to pull a shirt over her head.
Outside, Dark was conversing with someone - someone very upset, from the way he was gesturing and pointing. Pointing towards the guildhouse... Shane realised that something was wrong. There was the scent of smoke in the air, and it wasn't exactly what Aiedo usually smelled of. And wasn't the light a bit strange...? Yes, it had to be fire. But where? The guildhouse held little fuel for a fire; it was built from bricks, and there wasn't much wood or paper anywhere in it, all the books and papers and stuff being locked up in a kind of safe built into the wall. And yet there was only the guild in that direction, apart from the houses between it and the Grays'.
"The guildhouse's on fire!" said Dark. "But that's impossible!"
The woman - Shane could now see that she was the receptionist from the guild, not a man at all - wasn't paying any attention, but trying to pull Dark toward the burning building. The hunter seemed uncertain of what to do, but decided to tag along and see what had happened. Shane, though not clad for such activities, followed them.
The guild area was full of people. Most of them were running back and forth with buckets, trying to put the flames out, but this proved to be more than a match for them - it seemed as if the very stone was on fire. Dark pulled his cloak over his face to shield himself from the smoke, then advanced cautiously. Shane, barefoot, had to remain behind; either that, or risk burning her feet. The ground closer to the guildhouse was hot enough to boil the water that was splashed on it, and it was clear that Dark would have to leave soon; not even thick-soled boots could keep the heat down for very long.
The assumption was proven right as Dark returned a minute later, scraping his boots on the cooler dirt where Shane and the receptionist were standing.
"Well?" asked Shane. Dark snorted. The receptionist still seemed upset; she was shaking and sobbing, probably quite shocked by the events.
"This isn't really possible," Dark said, finally breaking the silence. "The stone is burning! But there can't be anything that hot, even if it's just bricks, not real stone...! I think the answer may lie within the building. I'll need water..."
"Hold it, Dark!" Shane protested. "You're not going anywhere unless I'm going too!" Dark shook his head.
"You'd get burned. I have enough clothes to be protected for a short while, but your shirt is insufficient. And I need to get in now. Has anyone gone in there already?" he asked, turning to the sobbing woman by Shane's side. She sniffed.
"I don't... know, Dark, it... happened so... fast! I think... don't know, please, please, do something!"
"If I can, I will," he promised. "You! Over there! Give me those buckets..." A man detached himself from the line and approached Dark, holding out two buckets. Dark took one and poured its contents over himself, taking care to get every piece of clothing and hair wet. Then he grabbed the other bucket and walked as close to the burning house as he could without the heat getting too intense. Putting down the bucket, he took a deep breath, closed his eyes and murmured something unintelligible, then started casting,
"NER... DEBAN!" Having cast those techniques, Dark picked up the bucket again, arranged his cloak's hood to protect as much of his face as possible, then started walking. Obviously, one of the 'techs had enhanced his speed, for although he was only walking, he seemed to move almost as fast as someone jogging.
The heat was almost unbearable, but as he had expected, the barrier created by Dark's Deban technique did keep out some of the worst smoke and fire. Everything burnable was gone now; the walls were glowing with a soft red-orange glow, illuminating everything within with an eerie, deadly light. Dark poured some more water over his cloak. The heat was causing the water to evaporate far too quickly for his taste. Unless he found the source of the fire soon, he would have to replenish his supply.
Speeded by Ner, he moved swiftly through the barroom, its floor covered with ashes from the three tables and the bar itself, and entered the stage room just as the technique of speed dissolved itself - should he recast it? No, he decided, it would take time, and he would have to get more water soon anyway.
Not quite done yet, this room had been meant to be a theatre, but someone had decided to hire dancers instead of actors. Dark didn't care for the kind of dancing they did up there, but there had been a show scheduled for this night... and he had seen no dancers outside. It would have been easy to spot them, since they usually wore colourful clothes - albeit not very much - while most people in Aiedo preferred earth tones that blended with the desert around them. So where were the dancers? Could it be they who caused this... fire?
No. Dark entered the dressing room, pouring some more water over himself as he went - he was almost out now, only enough for one more time - and saw something that caused his anger to flare as hot as the stone around him.
In the middle of the room, a creature seemingly made from fire was seated in empty air. Suspended in the air in front of it, one of the dancing girls was hanging limply. She was naked; the fire must have destroyed the flimsy dress in seconds, and although this room strangely seemed cooler than the rest of the house - the walls didn't glow much here; close to the doors they were a bit red, but the rest of the room had to be protected - her skin was blistered and blackened. It was impossible to tell if the poor woman was still alive; Dark didn't know whether it would be better for her to have died earlier, and be spared some of the torment, or to live so that he could heal her. That was, if he could defeat this fiery creature...
It reminded him of Saghi and Saghy, the demons he had fought a few months earlier. The appearance was very similar, yet this being only radiated heat, not the deadly malice that the demons had possessed.
Dark poured the last water over his head, then threw the bucket at the monster. The wooden container burst into flames and cracked into ashes at the contact, and Dark readied his sword. That the steel would be able to survive contact with heat that intense was not very likely - and even if it did, Dark's hands would not.
Summoning all his mental and physical strength, Dark summoned his most dangerous power: the one he called Darkblade
The sword turned deep black, and dark blue flames outlined the sword's contours, like a corona.
As he swung, Dark realised that this was going too easy. The monster hadn't moved at all since he entered the room... why?
The answer was delivered to him a second later, as his enhanced weapon cut through the fire as easily as it cut through air - and with as much effect! Darkness, blue fire and starlike silver sparks danced in the blade's wake, but -
Fire flowed through the thin trail of darkness, rushing up the sword and Dark's arm, over his chest, finally striking his face. Blinded, Dark staggered backwards, dropping his sword. A mocking laughter filled the room.
"Soo, the mighty Dark Gray... who destroyed the Adder... and met an Esper! How easily does he fall!"
Dark froze in his tracks, forgetting the searing pain, replacing it with ice-cold fury. The fire had burned his eyes badly, but he had cured worse. Gritting his teeth, he cast, "NARES!"
His wounds closed, faster than ever before, leaving Dark breathless - and able to see again.
"So, the mighty puppy shows its little teeth... come, find me!"
Growling, Dark stepped over his red-hot sword and thrust his fist through the insubstantial fire creature's chest, not feeling any pain as he released the power of Gizan, centred in the very core of the flame-being. Shrieking, it was torn to pieces, which faded into ashes.
"As strong as expected!" Dark thought he heard someone applauding. The voice continued, mockingly: "But, can you face a greater power? Only time will tell!" Abruptly, the presence that had been speaking to him was gone, leaving Dark alone.
All around him, stone was going ping or cracked with the sound of a small explosion as it rapidly - unnaturally so - cooled down. Dark sighed, and bent to check the girl's condition. Finding her alive, ignoring his weariness, he cast Rever, stabilising her fading life-force and healing some of the worst wounds, then carefully picked her up.
On his way out, he saw the second dancer, little more than a blackened skeleton. Whatever the cause of this cruelty, it was clear to him that the ones behind it would not hesitate to do anything in order to get what they wanted. Whatever that was.
"How are they?" asked Shane. The doctor made some obscure gesture, shrugging.
"Your brother is resting... the blisters on his face and arms are healing fine, I expect he sustained worse wounds but -" his voice wavered a little, as if the man was in awe of Dark's 'magic' "- healed them while he was in there. The girl..." Shaking his head sadly, he muttered, "She's in shock... her body is severely wounded, but we can help her... however, her psyche is critical. The shock.. and It seems she sustained damage to her brain as well, from the fire. There's nothing I can do... Unless she somehow recovers that damage by herself, she'll die.
"I... I won't... let her," whispered Dark, struggling to sit up. "Take... me to her... Now!"
"Never! I won't be a part of this... you'll be killing yourself! Stay put!" ordered the doctor. Dark smiled.
"Would you... rather I killed you? I said... take me to her!"
"Shane! You must -"
"She 'must' nothing! Where is she?"
"In the next room, the bed by the window... but please -!"
"No. I have to help her." Struggling to rise, Dark got halfway, then fell back, sitting. The doctor shook his head.
"I told you -"
"I won't give up." His anger giving him strength, Dark finally managed to stand, then staggered towards the door, using the wall for support. Shane took his arm and placed it over her shoulders, then half led, half dragged Dark into the next room.
"Thank you Shane... please... leave me."
"I'll stay. Don't expect me to leave you alone again, big brother. I... should have been with you in there..."
"There was... nothing you... could have done." Reaching out, Dark laid his hand on the girl's forehead, closing his eyes. "Re... REver... no! It's no... no use, I am... too weak." His head sank down against the pillow, despite his efforts to hold it up. "Never! I will... never give up! Shane... no... never mind. SAK... ...!"
Suddenly limp, Dark fell to the floor. Shane caught him, but could only stare in wonder at the miraculous healing that was taking place before her.
As she watched, burns and blistered skin smoothened, returning to its normal, soft brown colour, the sun-tanned skin of a Motavian denizen, now unmarked.
"You did it, Dark!"
Dark didn't reply. Picking him up, Shane carried her brother back into his own room.
"What -?" asked the doctor. Shane motioned for him to look. While she put Dark down on his bed, he went to have a look. A second later, he came back, wild-eyed, and stared at Dark. "What did he cast? Tell me now! Now!"
"Why - well, he said 'Sak'," said Shane. "Why? Is that some new healing technique?"
"Fool!" The doctor was turning pale. "Give him this! And this too!" Fumbling in his pockets, he handed Shane two bottles, one full of an incandescent blue liquid that she recognised as extremely rare and precious Moondew. The other one contained an orange potion Shane knew to be Trimate, a medicine not quite as powerful, but nowadays almost as rare. Suddenly fearing for her brother's life, she broke sealed neck of the first bottle and poured the contents down Dark's throat, holding him still so that he wouldn't be able to spill anything. The reflexes, obviously, still worked, for Dark swallowed convulsively, gasping - but then went limp again, his head falling to one side. Hurriedly, she pulled he stopper from the Trimate and let the liquid pour into Dark's mouth. He swallowed this potion as well, then coughed, moving a little, and taking a deep breath. He was unconscious, but his breathing was getting stronger, and some colour had returned to his cheeks.
"It is my job," said the doctor, but she sensed that he was relieved, too. Losing the hero of the year wouldn't be something that made people trust a doctor.
"What did he do?" asked Shane.
"The damn fool cast a technique known as Sak. It is very easy to use - it requires only the slightest mental exertion, and it has a remarkable effect on the one it's cast upon - it can heal almost anything, short of actual death... But it drains a deeper-lying part of energy, what is known as 'core power'. As I said, it can cure almost anything... at the price of the caster's life."
Speechless, Shane could only stare at him.
"Eh... excuse me... Where am I? And... what is this place..?"
They turned to see the dancer girl standing in the door, a bit pale but otherwise fully restored. Shane and the doctor exchanged glances.
"You are in the Aiedo hospital, because you were wounded in the fire," said Shane, "And I think it'd be best if we sat down and talked... sometime very soon."
"I must confess, this is a very unexpected sight."
"You're awake! Dark, I'm so relieved - why the hells did you do it?"
"Always the diplomat, Shane. To tell you the truth, I did expect an outburst like that, so I am prepared for it: I saved her life in there. I never take anything halfway just to leave it on the road. I knew that Sak would complete the healing. So, it was worth it."
"I never thought you'd say anything like that..."
"I know. You don't know me very well."
"Not as well as I thought I did."
"No." There was silence for a while, then Dark added, "And I would do the same for any of you... Jun, Tirom, or you, Shane. To me, the lives of those I love are worth much more than my own. And, so is my honour."
"I understand the part about loved ones..." said Shane, not bothering to hide her puzzlement.
"My honour is what saved that girl's life. If I hadn't had it, she would have needed that Moondew, while I cured myself."
"But you didn't know he had it!" Shane protested, "Or did you?"
"Had I known," Dark replied dryly, "then I wouldn't have done what I did. Had I known, I would have insisted he give it to her - or bought it from him and administered the potion myself. Still, my honour - and my pride, damn it - demands I finish what I start. How is she?"
"Well, and resting, at the moment. She got up only moments after you collapsed - by the way, you did collapse! How did you know about the Moondew?"
"By all reckoning, I should be dead. You have no Moondew, at least that I knew of. The only substance I know of that can bring someone virtually dead back to life, is Moondew. Otherwise, the technique of Rever is required, and it is pretty obvious that no one here knows that. By the way, I can feel a slightly... blue taste... what else?"
"As arrogant as ever, brother. Still, it's good to have you back..."
"Shane? You're not gonna get sentimental on me now, are you?" Dark asked warily. Shane still felt like crying, but could only laugh. "That's better," he said, then closed his eyes, turned his back on Shane and promptly fell asleep.
"So, how do you intend to find the guy?" asked Shane. "Look, Dark - even if you could somehow find any kind of trace in the house... there's no way you could follow it all the way! It's been four days since the fire! Anything useful is bound to be gone by now."
"I don't think so. I know it's not like that. I can find something... and it can take me to the one who spoke! I can tell you this much: he wants me to find him, he made as much clear. But I'd wager he won't be making it easy for me, either - he wants to... test me. But he knew who I am; he spoke in a way that... well, I don't think he'll be as careless as not to leave some clue that I can follow. And, while you don't know me as well as you think, he knows even less. I will find him - and I will kill him."
"Should we have Jun call for Tirom?"
"She'd be a great help," Dark agreed. "See if you can find Jun... and ask him to use the 'request' signal, not 'emergency'."
"For her? No. Only for the one responsible... when I find him."
"I... see. I'll go thief-hunting, then - get some sleep while I'm gone, okay?"
As soon as Shane left, Dark got out of bed, dressed, and started checking out on his weapons. The Laconian claw was in perfect condition, not even a scratch marking the bluish metal, but there were a few nasty notches in the blade of his sword. Well, considering the way he'd been using the weapon, fighting everything from robots to sandworms to demons, it was a small miracle that the blade had survived for so long. Yet, this time he needed to be completely certain. Taking a look in his wardrobe, he found another, similar weapon - a titanium shortsword, its hilt made from the same metal as the blade and wrapped in a braided leather thong made from sandworm hide. It was a Motavia-style blade; a slashing weapon, not, like most shortswords, mainly a thrusting weapon. Carefully checking the weapon - as he had done several times before - Dark found no signs of decay or defects in the metal. Whirling the blade around his body in a complex pattern, he found himself admiring its excellent balance - he wouldn't know much difference from the damaged weapon; if anything, this one was even better. Putting the damaged sword in the wardrobe - it had some sentimental value; he didn't want to get rid of it - he closed the door and started thinking about other equipment.
Now having studied techniques for several years, his distrust for them completely gone, Dark needed less than most people. To light a fire, he'd simply cast Foi, and as for healing potions, he needed little, relying instead on Res and Anti techniques - his pack wouldn't be half as full as Shane's. However, there were some things that techniques couldn't do - such as create clothes, or pitch a tent (or at least Dark knew no techniques capable of it; whether there were any or not, he did not know). Techniques or not, he would need some equipment - and now was the time to pack it.
As Dark reached the guildhouse, carpenters and stoneworkers had begun repairing the damaged parts - which included most of the house, Dark knew. He'd asked Shane to meet him there by mid-day, but he was early and it would be some time before she arrived.
"Dark Gray, I assume?"
Dark turned to face the speaker. The voice was unknown to him. "That," he said, "depends. And you are?"
The stranger was a woman about Dark's height, and about his age, too, from the looks of her. Like Dark, she wore a grey cloak over green shirt and leggings. Two sheaths hanging from her belt seemed to hold knives or daggers; no larger weapons were visible. Her skin was somewhat darker than his, but Dark, in spite of his name, was unusually pale; the results of much time spent indoors studying books. So far, nothing was out of the ordinary - but her hair was black, a colour most unusual. As unusual were her eyes, which were brown, but gold-streaked; a striking appearance, to say the least.
"Crystal, or Crys for short. I have been appointed by the guild to help you on your mission."
"I'm not so sure I understand what you mean. What mission?" Dark said, lying without any effort. Crys snorted.
"Did you think your sister would keep quiet? She didn't, anyway, and of course the guild got to hear about your plans. So, since you helped with the fire, they thought they should repay you a little."
"Repay me... hmph! Most likely try to wiggle out of a debt," Dark muttered. "Not that I'd ever consider calling in such a debt, but... Crys, hmm? I think I might have seen you around sometime... but it was a long time ago." But it wasn't just that - the name seemed familiar, too... "If you're to come with me, you'd better be able to contribute something to the group. Can you fight? Or what?"
The next thing he knew, Dark was lying on his back on the ground, Crys' booted foot on his chest holding him down. Dark had been caught with his guard down; it was a simple move, and he should have been able to block it easily.
"Well enough to survive this long," she said calmly. "I could, of course, do better, but I wouldn't want to hurt you."
"Hey! What do you think you're doing?"
"Cool it, Shane!" snapped Dark. "It's my fault - I asked for it, sort of."
"What's this all about?" his sister asked. "And who's this person?"
"Crys," said Crys, holding out a hand to help Dark up. He pointedly ignored it, rising by himself. "And you are Shane, I understand."
"Yes, I am... Dark, Jun will be with us shortly - he's... communicating with Tirom."
"Good," muttered Dark. "Did you have to tell everybody about this? If our... friend has eyes or ears here, unless he's blind and deaf, he'll see or hear us."
"Well excuse me! I didn't think your 'friend' would need that kind of seeing or hearing to know you were coming after him!"
"That I will, yes. When or how, no. Nevermind. But how come you're so early? I almost didn't think you'd be able to get everything done in time."
"I started packing as soon as I knew that you'd be alright," Shane said, smiling. "In some matters, I do know you, brother."
"Hiya, Jun," Tirom greeted the thief as the green light faded and she could see again. "Oh, damn, but I'll never get used to Ryuka-ing that far... Have I missed something? Or were you just getting bored?"
"Dark is getting bored," Jun said humorously. "The only thing that's been happening is the guildhouse almost burning down and him almost killing himself with Sak to save some dancer girl. Nothing out of the ordinary."
"!?! Where is he now? Is he okay?" gasped Tirom, grabbing Jun's shirtfront.
"Take it easy, Tirom. He's okay, the doctor saved him. But someone sent a fire-demon to destroy the guildhouse, and Dark is going after him... that's why he asked me to call for you."
Tirom released the thief and straightened her back. "What! And you didn't use the emergency signal?"
"Relax, babe. He told me not to."
"Well, I'll be - hold on... babe? Next time something like that happens, you use the damn emergency signal, and you do it right away, you hear me? And it doesn't matter what Dark says because he'll be the one who's knocked out and either way I'm the one who can follow you anywhere you go!"
"Well... ehm, sure! Really, ehm, like, no problems. Dark's at the guild, waiting for us."
"Hold on to me, and I'll take us there," Tirom commanded. Jun grabbed hold of the sleeve of her green Motavian's robe, and Tirom cast the technique, "RYUKA!"
The Grays' house faded from view, replaced by bright green light, then the back door of the Hunters' Guild faded in.
"Why didn't you get us to the front door?" Jun complained. "We could have walked instead!"
"Shut up, Jun. You know very well that I don't want to be seen teleporting. It's an ace up my sleeve, so to speak. Come on!" She hurried off. Jun shrugged, then opened the door, walking through the ruined guildhouse.
Tirom arrived a few seconds before him, and as Jun exited the house, the half-Motavian was sitting down by Dark's side on a bench. Shane was there as well, as was another woman - a very handsome one, Jun thought.
"How are you?" asked Tirom, looking at Dark. "I heard you used Sak! You - should be dead."
"I was, but I got better," Dark assured her. "Thanks to a bottle of Moondew. The doctor knew what he was doing."
"Thank goodness! But what are you going to do? Jun told me you were going after someone... how about filling me in on the details?"
Dark explained what he intended to do, which didn't take much time since he had no real plan, then warned his companions: "It won't be easy. Dangerous, to say the least. Very dangerous."
"You know," said Shane, not bothering to finish the sentence.
"I don't care if it's dangerous," Tirom snorted. "We've tackled dangerous situations before, and I'm not afraid to do it again. I'd feel very insulted if you tried to make me remain here."
"As would I," Jun stated defiantly, knowing that Dark would rather tell him to remain behind. "I've proved that I can be of help to you!"
Dark nodded. If it hadn't been for Jun, he - and Shane and Tirom too, for that matter - would probably have been dead, killed by the demon Saghi (or possibly Saghy).
"And I," Crys said, "never back out on an assignment. I said I'll go with you; if you decide to take us to hell, my word stands."
"I had expected nothing less," Dark muttered to himself, then addressed the rest of the party: "Very well. I am going to have a look at the house, and although I am the only one who's likely to notice the special clues meant for me, I'd be grateful if you would accompany me - perhaps there's something else, too."
"What are we waiting for?" Shane asked. Dark shrugged.
"Nothing, I guess. Then, let us go."
The hallway was already being finished - they had even put up a new list of "Hunters With The Most Cases Processed" for the last five years; the receptionist, it seemed, had kept copies of the 'important' documents in her home. Dark didn't have to look at it to know that he was on the top of the list, sharing the first place with Shane - they always worked together, of course - and that on the twenty posts long list, a rather new addition, Tiram Khuda, was listed as the seventeenth. However, he scanned the list as he passed, for no apparent reason at all.
There it was! Dark stopped, and Shane walked into his back.
"Oof! Watch where you're-"
"Shut it." Dark cocked his head to the left, eyes narrowing, as he read the name at fifth place on the list.
No. 5: Crystal The space reserved for last name was empty, and there was no alias instead; just 'Crystal'. Dark checked the next line:
Cases processed: 50
No real hunter looked at that list; at least no one whose name was on it. It was meant for the younger hunters, to give them some idea of how much you had to work to become a respected hunter, and for non-hunter visitors, simply to impress people. Dark had read it thrice before, once the first time he entered the guild, once when his name first appeared on it; the last time being after he heard that he and Shane had reached the prestigious first place. Shane, of course, still read it; she was young enough, in her mind, to like that sort of thing. Dark sometimes wondered if he should be jealous.
But this time he knew why the name had seemed familiar. The last time he looked, the list had been old, and the numbers had been altered several times, reflecting the hunters' taking on new assignments - but there had been one post that had been unaltered...
The fifth one, of course. That had been what made him look at it, because it was so clean - it seemed this hunter had taken on no assignments at all since the last time the list was changed. It was odd. Hunters who didn't take on assignments didn't stay on the list.
But this one did... and fifty solved cases was a very neat number. Very neat; it almost looked as if it had been done on purpose. Like look here, I've taken on and solved 50 assignments in five years, I could do more, but I don't feel like it at the moment. And since the list only showed how many cases the hunter had processed in the last five years, she'd have to renew the records sometimes... apparently, she did, and did it good, too.
Before someone asked him what he was doing, Dark walked on. But he had a strange feeling that if he asked around, actually tried to find something out, he would find that this particular hunter hadn't been 'appointed' to do anything at all - the whole thing had probably been her idea to start with. So... where did that put them?
He started his search in the room where he had destroyed the demon. He had no idea of what he was looking for, but once he found it, Dark expected to know that he had found it.
However, the room was empty - except for the feathery white ashes, of course; the remains of whatever wooden furniture had been in the room. Dark kicked around in the ash for a while, but, as the only thing he managed to do was make everybody sneeze violently, he soon quit kicking and started examining the walls for some clue. There was, of course, nothing.
"Dark... look at this," Crystal suggested. She had brushed the soot and ashes from a small area on the wall. She appeared to be staring at this particular area, as if there was something she wasn't exactly sure if she really saw, but thought it might disappear if she looked away for the merest instant.
"What is it?" asked Dark.
"I said look!" Crys snapped, but she didn't move. Dark took a few steps towards her and looked at the wall. It had cracked from the intense heat, but there seemed to be nothing particular about it.
"So?" he asked. "It's just a wall. Do you know something I don't?"
"Look at it!" she hissed. "From where I'm standing!"
Dark moved as to stand directly behind Crys and looked over her shoulder. "I still can't see anything..."
"Look at the cracks. Don't they remind you of something...?"
Dark strained his eyes to see something new, but all he could see was a pattern formed from thin cracks, somewhat teardrop-shaped, but that was all.
"No," he said finally, "I can't see anything but cracks. The formation's a bit strange, but it isn't more so than I expect from such a fire."
"Dark... observe the 'cracks'," Crys commanded, "while I get a map, if there's one to be had... I know I have seen that formation somewhere!"
Before Dark could protest, she slipped out of the room.
"Dunno," Jun said helpfully. Dark growled something rude. He didn't like this - not one bit.
It took Crystal almost half an hour to find a map suited for what she had in mind. Dark was in a very foul mood when she finally arrived.
"What the hells was that good for?" he accused as she stepped through the door. "I couldn't look away from this stupid wall because I didn't want to lose sight of the formation, and I couldn't mark the wall because that in itself could destroy it - I certainly hope you've got a very good explanation, or, commission or not, you're staying here with your cracks!"
"Look at that!" Crys snorted. "I am trying to help you find what you're looking for, and this is the thanks I get? Nevermind, this is a map, such as it is, of Motavia, such as it is - well, it's not very good, but more accurate than the one I saw - it was a few hundred years old, from the time of the Collapse, if you've heard of it? Yes? Well, this isn't as good, of course, since we have to travel on foot or by boat, but it'll suffice... Look at this peninsula, here..."
Everybody, including Dark, turned their heads to look at the map Crys was holding. Impatient, the mysterious lady pointed to a spot on the map quite far from Aiedo - well past Zema, even beyond the small quicksand field east of the town. A bit farther to the east and south, there was a small peninsula, just as she had said. There seemed to be a town or village there, for the map was marked with a small red square, over which the word 'Termi' was written in red ink. Dark had never been there, but he seemed to recall hearing of a town named Termi. But, "What's this got to do with the cracks on the damn wall?"
"Look at the 'damn peninsula', Dark!"
Dark had been looking at the square, but as she mentioned the peninsula his eyes refocused - and he remembered. Looking back and forth between the wall and the map for a while, he finally admitted it:
"They are virtually identical..." Even the dot that was Termi had been marked out on the wall. And he could... feel? Feel something... but what?
"They are...? Yes, they are!" Shane exclaimed, following Dark's example and looking back and forth between the wall and the map. "They are! Could it be a coincidence...?"
"No," Dark said, not a single doubt in his voice, "it isn't. It could have been, if I found the mark, but this means someone wants us to go to Termi..." His eyes narrowed and he looked Crys straight in the eyes. "And I hope this someone knows what he... or she... is doing..."
Crys couldn't really miss the distrust in his words, but she returned his steady gaze nevertheless, and calmly said, "So do I."
"So it's decided... We go to Termi," Shane concluded. The others nodded.
"It's the only trail we have to follow," Tirom said, "but let's not hope too much..."
"Like I said, someone went through some trouble to get us to Termi," Dark muttered, "and whatever they have ready for us... we can handle it." Crys snorted, but said nothing. "What I'd really like to know," Dark continued, "is how you knew exactly where to look for that clue. There weren't any signs..." But then what was it he had felt?
"The signatures were different... Everything in there reeked unnatural power, but that part of the wall was different. Don't ask for an explanation," she warned as Dark opened his mouth to do just that, "because I can't give you one. All I can say is that it was different; it felt different. Termi's our best bet, so far."
"Sometime, you will have to explain that," Dark muttered, "but it can wait. We leave tomorrow, at dawn. Anyone not at our place by then will have to catch up. First thing we do, we head for Zema; we'll take the usual trade route. After that, we'll see..."
As expected, everyone involved was at the Grays' house by sunrise - not a very difficult feat, since everyone but Crystal was living there, both Jun and Tirom having rooms in case they decided to drop by (which happened quite often). Crystal, of course, wasn't late, either, but was waiting by the door.
"It took you," she remarked as Dark stepped out.
"Sun's not up yet."
"But it's damn near. Terms like 'dawn' or 'sunrise' are very vague ones, Gray."
Dark didn't even bother to give a reply. Crys shrugged and followed the companions.
The journey to Zema was eventless. If sandworms had been that intelligent, one might almost suspect that they had heard of Dark and Shane's progress and decided to keep out of their way. Either way, they encountered neither monsters nor fellow travellers on the way. As they stopped by at the inn in Zema, Dark gathered everybody in the common room to discuss further progress.
"As far as I know, none of us has been to Termi - Crys? Tirom?" The women shook their heads. "Well, in that case we have a problem. The quicksand area isn't very wide, but it seems to be in the way... there are mountains on both sides, with quicksand in between. That means either climbing, or going around the mountains - and unless you all feel like swimming, the first alternative is clearly the best one. Any objections?"
No one said anything. Dark nodded. "I thought you'd feel like that. I suggest we stay here for a day and renew our supplies, then move on towards the northern mountain range. It seems the best way to go; we'll end up near a small semipermanent nomad camp once we get down. Any other suggestions? No? Well, go get some sleep, then. It'll be a tough journey, better be fully prepared..." Dark rose from his chair and headed for the door leading out into Zema.
"As the group's leader," Crystal remarked, "you are the one who should go get some rest."
"I get enough." Before she could say more, he was out of the building and closed the door behind him.
"Why you damn... idiot... arrogant... man!" Crys muttered as she got up and headed for her room. Shane and Tirom exchanged glances and smiled as they followed her, while Jun remained behind, looking back and forth between the two doors, trying to decide if he should take the one leading to the corridor where the rooms were located, or the one leading out. Finally making up his mind, he sighed and headed for his room. If he wanted to follow Dark, he should have done so immediately; he stood little chance to find the hunter in the darkness.
Dark had intended to get some fresh air before going to bed, but found the dark, silent city so refreshing that he decided to take a longer walk and have a look at it.
He got as far as to the blocked cave in the back of the town before he sensed that something was wrong, or at least odd. Stopping as if to inspect the cave-in blocking the entrance to the cave itself, he looked around for something that seemed out of place, but saw nothing. As he started walking again, he also took the opportunity to look behind him without making it look as if he was looking - and saw a dark shape standing between the two closest houses. An instant later, as he turned his had that way again, the shape was gone.
Of course, Zema was a town; there were people living there, so that someone was on the streets wasn't very strange, but Dark had a feeling that this particular 'someone' had been watching him, specifically. It made him feel a bit uneasy, but on the other hand, he told himself, his 'having a feeling' was no guarantee. Then again, it wasn't something to take too lightly, either...
Heading back to the inn, Dark kept looking around to see if he was followed, but couldn't spot anything. And the feeling had gone away, just a few seconds after that mysterious figure disappeared. Call me crazy, Dark thought as he walked, but I could swear that he actually did disappear... just like Tirom...
Dark didn't mention the incident - if indeed it had been an 'incident' - to the others as they met in the common room to eat breakfast. He wasn't going to waste his breath on something that probably didn't have anything to do with them - it would only serve to make the others edgy; Jun and Shane, at least, he didn't know how Tirom and Crystal would react to such news. It was better not take any chances, though...
They refilled their packs with dried food, waterskins, and a few healing potions from the pharmacy, spent another night at the inn, and were off before the sun rose into the sky. There were no disturbances the second night, but Dark decided to keep an eye out, just in case.
Fortunately, the mountains weren't very high or steep, making climbing relatively easy. Still, it wasn't as easy as walking. Where earlier, they had only stopped for a break two or possibly three times each day, they now had to take breaks twice as often, sometimes more. They were all used to walking, but this was a different thing entirely - and the only one who seemed unaffected, strangely, was Jun. Possibly, he was used to climbing - house walls, that is, Dark thought wryly as he observed Jun, agile as a monkey, jump over a rock blocking his way rather than circling around it.
A few days after they left Zema, an especially high wall blocked their way, forcing the group to detour to the north. Dark, meanwhile, climbed the cliffs to have a look at the area ahead of them, using his Laconian claw as a climbing tool. When he got down again, he gathered his companions around him and talked in a very quiet voice:
"There is a bridge ahead... around this wall. And there are three people on the bridge... I don't know who they are, but I doubt they are here for the view. Now, I'm not saying to attack them - we'll let them decide if they are friends or enemies. But see that you have your weapons ready, in case they make the second choice... okay?" Everybody nodded, and the party made halt to check their various weapons. Shane always kept her sword in top condition and didn't bother to check it now; she had done that in the morning. Tirom, though as scrupulous about her knives' condition, nervously checked and double-checked them before she was satisfied; she wasn't really a fighter, and fighting tended to unsettle her. Jun didn't usually carry any weapons; he just borrowed one of Tirom's spare knives and put in his belt. Meanwhile, Crystal, her back to the rest of the party, was doing something... Dark, the only one who seemed to notice, went to have a look at whatever it was she was doing.
Crys was sheathing one weapon as Dark approached, but the other one was lying on a rock in front of her, two blades joined into a V-shape.
"What the - a slasher?" Dark asked. "I didn't think there was anyone able to use them anymore... or make them, for that matter."
"I can use them, alright," Crys said, "and as for making them, well, I have some, don't I?"
"That's a way of looking at it, of course... but what I meant was, before I saw you with them. When I've seen them, of course, I know that someone knows how to make them, and if you couldn't use them, why bring them? Anyway, how good are you?"
"You see that tree over there?" Crys asked, pointing to a small, wind-twisted pine tree some twenty meters away. Dark, of course, saw the tree, and didn't answer. "See that branch sticking out to the left of it?" she continued. Dark nodded.
"Watch!" She stood up and unsheathed the second slasher, unfolded its blades, and raised the two weapons. For a second, she stood still, taking aim, then threw. Dark followed the boomerang-like weapons with his eyes...
The branch fell. The slashers, like the wooden boomerangs Dark had seen Motavian hunters use, spun in a wide arc, then returned. Crys caught them easily.
"Take a look at the branch," she said as she sheathed the weapons. She wouldn't say more, and Dark, muttering milder swearwords under his breath, went to have a look.
As he reached the pine, he understood why she had insisted that he look for himself. He would never have believed it if she had just told him - for the branch had been severed, not in one, but two places! One slasher had cut it loose from the tree; the other one had cut the branch itself in two.
Phew! And I thought that Motavian was good! Hmm... Lucky she's on our side...
Once they were done checking their weapons, they headed for the bridge. Dark took the lead, followed by Shane, then Crys, with Jun bringing up the rear.
A large man, wearing a black cloak and an equally black helmet, shaped to resemble a dragon's head, blocked the bridge. He was standing in the middle of it, his back to the party, and it was clear that no one could cross the chasm unless he let them - or at least not using that bridge. The man seemed somewhat familiar to Dark - possibly, he had been the mysterious shadow in Zema. But, familiar or not; since it was the only bridge they could see, and the chasm was several kilometres long, they would have to convince him to let them use the bridge, or lose several days trying to hike around the chasm. Or, of course, teleport over... But it would be hard on Tirom, and Dark decided to talk first.
"Is there a bridge tax?" he asked politely. Two other figures appeared on the other side of the chasm, stepping out from behind a large rock.
"Who wants to know?" one of the new ones asked, a tall brown-haired one - Dark guessed it was a man, but it was too far to see clearly - wearing green on his(?) legs and brown on his(?) upper body.
"You can call me Dark. Is there a problem?"
"Depends," the tall one said.
"Cut it out! Averon! Cain! Silva! You should know better!" Crystal shouted. "Get off that bridge, man!"
"I intended to," said the dark-clad man on the bridge, his voice deep and resonant. "When you were going to stop staring and actually cross it."
"I intend to cross it right now, thank you very much!" Crys said, stepping onto the wooden bridge. The black-clad man spun around once, gathering his cloak around him, and - disappeared! A moment later, he appeared next to the one who had spoken first.
"What are you waiting for, girl?" the green-and-brown figure shouted. "Move your pretty ass!"
"Just you wait...!" Crys muttered, swiftly crossing the bridge. Dark and the others followed her, some five meters behind.
"I thought I told you to stay out of this!" Crys complained. "What are you doing here?"
"Well..." Cain, clad in black full-body armour and wearing a black sword at his belt, tapped the area on his helmet that supposedly covered his nose. The metal made a deep, low pong sound, like a bell. "Our friend Averon was a bit worried that these people wouldn't be able to protect you..."
"Is that true! Averon, you know very well that I can take care of myself!"
"He's exaggerating - as usual," muttered Averon, the tall brown-haired one in green trousers and brown shirt; a pale but very handsome man with sparkling brown eyes. Like Cain, he carried a longsword, although Averon's was a normal, steel coloured one. "I simply wanted to se how you were doing so far."
"Up yours," Crystal muttered. "We were doing fine - 'til you showed up!"
"Yeah... like, you've got an awful lot of explaining to do," Dark growled. "A fat lot of explaining! This sounds as if all this was planned...?"
"We weren't talking to you," Averon said. "So you'd better shut it, little man. This has nothing to do with you."
"Oh yeah? Say that again and I'll make you eat that sword! Your friend insisted on coming with me on my journey, and I don't know anything about her - or you for that matter! For all I know, you could have started the fire in Aiedo! And if I find out that you did... you will be sorry you crossed me."
"You're challenging me?"
"You wish! I am trying to get information! And unless I get it, you can take Crystal with you when you leave. I accepted her as a member of my party... but I never guaranteed that she'd be allowed to go with me all the way. It's your choice. But unless you give me answers, you'd better pack your gear and leave, or things are going to get rough!"
"Hey, don't be so cocky! First, steel doesn't taste all that bad, second, I don't need a sword to take you out, and third, unless you get polite this very instant I'll take it as a reason to trash you..."
"Averon," Cain said calmly, laying a hand on his companion's shoulder, "don't do something stupid. He's a technique-user. I wouldn't mess with him if I were you..."
"...but I would if I were you," Averon finished, as if this was something that happened often. "You know what I can do."
"I know what he can do, too. Crys choose wisely, and she'll need him. Leave it, Averon."
"Bah! Alright, I'll leave it - for now. But don't you mess with me, or I'll kick your butt anyway!"
"Averon!" Crys shouted. "You are going too far! I told you to stay behind but you didn't. Now you're threatening my companions! What's next? Calm down damn it!"
"I am calm. But I'm not subject to your commands, Crys - don't tell me what to do. You still aren't any match for me."
"But I am!" Cain snapped, drawing his black sword and thrusting the blade halfway into the ground. "If anyone here breaks the peace, they'll answer to me personally!" Turning to Crystal, he added: "And I think it's time for the explanations. They've got the right to know - I'm disappointed with you, Crys. You should have told them immediately."
"And do you think they'd believe me?" she hissed. "Alright, sit down, and I'll tell you..."
"A long time ago, a man named Yangour was born. He-"
"The Techmaster?" Dark interrupted. "I've heard of him. He took on an assignment for the Guild several years ago - twelve, I think - and cleared out the subterranean level in the ruins of Nido tower! Man, that was some story - I heard it had become a nest of sandworms... and infested with all sorts of critters..."
"If you would let me continue...?" Crys hinted. Dark took the hint and shut up. "As I was saying, Yangour was born a long time ago - a very long time.
"He is dead now. His death, however, is very recent - so recent, in fact, that his corpse might still be recognisable as Yangour. That is, had there been anything left of it."
"Yangour - dead? How come I've never heard even the slightest rumour, then?" Dark challenged.
"Because no one knew, or even suspected, that he was dead, of course! Anyway, when he died, Yangour was over a hundred and sixty years old. He led a full life; I don't think it's all that unfair that he died, since he'd already used up two normal human lifespans. It's not his death that bothers me - but that someone actually managed to kill him. He was a master, Dark - even you, one of the strongest tech-users I've ever seen, would be but a child in comparison."
"Well thank you very much!"
"You're welcome, Dark, but would you please stop interrupting me?"
"Go right ahead."
"Thanks! Now, where was I... Oh yeah. Yangour was very strong. He had ways to defend against almost any technique that exists. Yet, I know for a fact that it was a Foi technique that finished him."
"That's impossible!" Tirom snorted. "I have survived the power of a Nafoi technique cast by a demon! Dark could probably walk on after the same spell, and if this Yangour was as strong as you seem to think - well, unless you're wrong, and he was a lot weaker than his reputation makes us think, what killed him has to be something more... a lot more."
"Right to the problem," Cain commented humorously.
There was silence while the Grays, Tirom and Jun thought this over. Finally, the young thief scratched his chin and stated, "You think someone has found a way of... increasing the power of Foi, beyond Nafoi's strength..."
"Did I say that?" Cain wondered.
"No, you didn't," Jun replied, "but that's what I hear, anyways. Don't tell me I'm right if I'm not right, but I am, right?"
Something silvery flashed behind the visor of Cain's helmet, where his left eye should be located - as if the man acknowledged Jun's theory with a wink.
"That boy has talent," Crys muttered to Dark.
"Yes. But also, he lacks training," the hunter muttered back, "because clearly, by normal means, that's impossible. Nafoi is the strongest fire technique we've been able to create - are you then suggesting that we are dealing with someone who has... more... unnatural powers at his command?"
"I have no idea," she confessed, "but that doesn't seem too unlikely. When you say 'unnatural'..."
"I'm not one of those who refuse to accept certain... possibilities," Dark murmured, staring into the small campfire, the firelight reflecting from his eyes and making it seem as if they were emitting a light of their own. "No one knows... well, someone knows, but I don't know who - Anyway, I have fought demons from several thousand years ago... and met an Esper, an old Motavian with white fur... A ghost, but still, an Esper's ghost. I know that 'magic' disappeared long ago, but there may be some remains... and someone may have found something..."
"And he... spoke to you? Ye gods...! I have underestimated you, Dark," Crys smiled. "I thought you were just a really good hunter... but it turns out you're more - much more..."
"Everybody does that," Dark said, returning the smile. "But then, Crystal, I underestimated you too. I didn't know what to make of you... still don't know, of course, but it's a bit different now. If you still want to come with us, you're welcome. I wouldn't mind leaving Averon behind, but... nevermind."
"Everybody underestimates him, too," Crystal said wryly. "He's actually very intelligent, and he's the best swordsman I've ever seen - possibly second to Cain, but I really don't think that is the case, from what I've seen of them so far. He tends to upset people, but I'm not sure how much of that is unconscious... He provoked you to see what kind of person you are. You didn't chicken out, but didn't draw weapons either - I think he's satisfied with that. You didn't back off when he insulted you, but you proved you aren't too violent, either."
"You could have told him that."
"Maybe. But he'd probably test you anyway. He's... well, he's that kind of person..."
For the first time in days, Dark felt like laughing - and he did. A few seconds later, Crys joined him, while the others confusedly stared at them, not having heard the conversation. And on the other side of the campfire, Averon, the only one who wasn't looking confused (excluding Cain, since his face was hidden) opened his mouth and, seemingly addressing the mountain wall, said: "Plus, he's got very good ears..."
"We'll come with you," Averon suggested as they sat around the campfire eating breakfast. "You'll need all the help you can get."
"I told you no!" Crys snapped. "I'm going to do this alone."
"If anyone is in command of this shit, it's me," Dark said calmly. "I'll decide whether you come with us or not.
"We would have the strength of numbers if you came along. On the other hand, the larger the group, the more likely that we're spotted, or that people wonder what the hell we're doing out in the desert. And some of us don't exactly look normal..."
"I insist! Silva and I are 'normal looking', and two more won't be any worse."
"So you think I'd stay behind?" Cain asked coolly. "Don't bet on it, loverboy..."
Averon snarled an insult and threw a knife at him. Cain didn't move, and the knife bounced off his chestplate with a clang!
If Cain hadn't been wearing that armour, Averon's knife would have hit in a way that made it all too possible that it'd slip in between two ribs and hit his heart. No one had seen the knife before; it must have been hidden somewhere on Averon's person. The way he got it ready and threw it made the throw seem easy, but anyone who had ever tried throwing a knife would know that it was difficult enough even when you took time to aim - which Averon hadn't done. Dark adjusted his already high estimation of Averon's skills another step to the better.
"Dark, if I may suggest..." Crys muttered, waving for Dark to come closer. "If we agree to take one of them with us, we'll have it all, so to speak - we'd let one of my friends come, but the group doesn't grow too much, either."
"Hmm... not a terribly bad idea," Dark admitted. "Who'd you suggest? Averon?"
"Hmm... No, not Averon. He's too... visible."
"Ha! Right you are! So who? Not Cain, hmh?"
"Actually, I was thinking of Silva."
"Silva, huh..." Silva, the third member of Crys' friends' group, was a shy young girl with pale green hair, skin even fairer than Averon's, and eyes the colour of polished jade. Dark estimated that she was in her mid-teens - she seemed a bit young for the kind of expedition they had embarked on. But then again, Jun had been taking care of himself for years before he even reached ten years of age, and when he mastered the technique of Tsu, he had certainly been younger than Silva.
"What can she do?" he asked.
"You're about to underestimate her too?" Crys asked, smiling wryly, taking away any insult from her words. "What do you think she can do?"
Dark cocked his head to the left as he looked at the little sylph, trying to figure out something about her, but there wasn't really anything to see. "She's no warrior," he said after a while, "or at least not the kind that I am - she's too frail, and doesn't look strong enough to wield a sword. If she fights, she'll be relying on agility and speed. In that case, she'd be wielding light weapons, like knives, claws - or slashers, of course. Then again, if she's not a fighter, she could be a tech-user... and I think she'd be a good one, too. She seems to have quite a bit of psychic strength, even though she's shy. A tech-user, yes, that's my guess - although I can't say whether she's like me, able to cast a little bit of everything, or specialised in destructive or healing techniques. Healing, somehow, seems most likely, because I can't imagine that she'd like hurting anyone. On the other hand, that fact could very well make her a better warrior than I am... No, I'd say she's a healer. So," he concluded, "how far from the target did I shoot?"
"Well, I think we could say that your shot hit the mark, close to the centre - using a standard target with ten fields, you scored somewhere around nine, close to ten. Not a perfect ten, but close to it. She's a healer, all right, and so far, her healing powers are unsurpassed. But she's not quite as frail as you seem to think she is. She can be tough if she has to, but then, you're right, too; she doesn't like killing. Ah, hell - let's call it a ten, shall we?"
"She'd probably be a useful addition to the party," Dark said thoughtfully. "Well - let her come along. She's not that visible, anyway..."
"Good. Silva! Would you come with us?"
"Yes, Crys," Silva replied. "I'll just be a moment."
"Hey, how 'bout us?" Averon asked. "You leaving us behind?"
"You bet I am!" Crystal said.
"Oh, Crystal, how could I tear my gaze away from those emerald eyes...?"
"He's trying to charm your sister," Crys confided Dark in a loud whisper; too loud for Shane not to hear, which Crystal's undoubtedly knew.
"Do you see anyone else with 'emerald' green eyes here? Don't worry, she's a grown woman - if she wants to be charmed, it's her problem."
"I'd tell her to watch out - Averon's charms is probably his best weapon. I've seen him flirt a sentry from her post..."
"A sentry? I've done it at least twice that you've seen," Averon corrected dryly, waving a finger at Crys, before turning his attention on Shane again. She didn't seem to mind the attention; she even giggled as he made some witty remark. Cain's comment suddenly seemed very accurate.
Dark shrugged. "Like I said, it's her headache. But if we are to get somewhere today, maybe we ought to gather our gear?"
"That's a suggestion... a good one, too," Crys smiled.
"What are we waiting for, then? Shane Tirom Jun! Get going! Grab your gear, we're outta here."
"I can take you down from the mountain and drop you off close to the camp," Cain offered, pulling his sword from the stone where he'd left it and resheathing it in one fluid move. "It'll save you several days of walking - and waiting."
"Tank you Cain... how about it, Dark?" Crys wondered.
"We'd be grateful."
Gathering the six companions in a circle around him, Cain cast a technique that neither Dark, Jun or Shane had ever heard about, and the mountain landscape disappeared. They appeared to be falling through a swirling vortex of black and blue, but as it disappeared, they were standing on ground almost as solid as the stone of the mountains - the tightly packed sand of a Motavian desert. Before they had a chance to thank him, Cain crossed his arms over his chest and spoke a single word of command. He disappeared, leaving only a faintly sparkling image of himself behind, which faded into nothingness in seconds. They were just a few kilometres away from the camp.
Several hours before nightfall, they reached the camp and were politely greeted by its inhabitants - a mix of Palmans and Motavians, for once living together in friendship. Tirom seemed proof that they could live in harmony - it was hard to imagine that any woman, Palman or Motavian, would keep a child conceived as a result of rape. The half-Motavian herself, however, didn't seem all too pleased.
"What's the matter?" Dark asked, as she pulled her green robe tighter around her body and let the hood hide her face as much as possible.
"My... parent races... so to speak. Palmans don't accept me as a Palman, and Motavians don't accept me as a Motavian. Please use my male name here."
"Rrright... Tiram." When the four of them had escorted professor Adrian Holt to Zema, he had paid them with various useful tools. Tirom's payment had come in shape of a holographic projector that could make her appear to look like anything that walked on two legs, but she never used it, except when she was looking for hunter jobs. She had told Dark that she wasn't ashamed of what she was, and saw no reason to hide her race - but still, she had been masquerading as a Palman man to get jobs for years, and it didn't bother her. Dark understood, probably more than she thought. "Yo, guys..." he said. "You'd better use it too, OK?"
"What? Use what?" asked Shane. Dark quickly explained to her, Jun and Crystal (who only knew Tirom as a woman, and had no idea she usually passed as a man with her light, blue fur passing as 'beard'). "Alright," Shane said, "it's cool." Tirom/Tiram smiled gratefully.
"Thanks! You wouldn't suppose there's an inn here, now, would you?"
"An inn?" a Motavian trader, who had overheard the last exchange, asked. "There's one to your right, two tents away."
"Thank you, my friend."
"But I'd be surprised if your merchandise was," Dark said. "What is it that you're selling?"
"Oh, a little bit of everything... but I'm specialised in titanium tools. Interested?"
"Knives?" Dark asked, his trained eyes spotting a dagger-shaped object under a scrap of sackcloth. The short, blue-furred trader nodded, his small red eyes observing Dark with a calculating look.
"This one," he said, removing the rough cloth, "is the only one I've got left. Keep'em covered to avoid getting the metal too hot to handle. It's four hundred twenty Meseta. Look, it's razor-sharp, and it'll keep that edge far better than a steel weapon - and the hilt is solid, too. It's a good tool - or weapon. Look, the hilt is wrapped in twisted silver thread to ensure a good hold! It's ideal for a travelling man like you!"
"Well," Dark smiled, "it's not for me - it's for the short one, over there." He pointed to Jun, who was busy playing with a small mongrel dog he had stumbled over. The trader seemed a bit disappointed, probably because he didn't think Dark would pay four hundred and twenty Meseta for a knife meant for a young boy like Jun, but Dark took a rough emerald, the size of a sparrow's egg, from a pouch, and tossed it to the Motavian. "It's valued at four fifty," he said, "and if you get it cut, it'll probably be worth twice that. Keep the change."
"You are most generous. Just a second, I'll get the sheath." It didn't take him many seconds to find the silver-embroidered black leather sheath among the various articles for sale on his tray, sheath the dagger and hand it do Dark, executing a small bow that almost caused several items on his tray to drop to the ground. "A pleasure doing business with you!"
"Yeah..." Dark muttered as he put the dagger in his pocket. "Jun! Come on, let's move."
They found the inn with a minimum of trouble. The rates were low and the beds were comfortable, and it didn't take them too long to fall asleep, even though it was pretty early in the day.
"I'd expect nothing less from you." Averon spat into the fire. "Damn those hunters! And damn Crys! I should've taken that green-haired kid's place - he wouldn't last a minute against me!"
"No. He'd last five," Cain said. "He's better than you think - I'm starting to get worried about you, Averon. You don't usually misjudge people that much."
"I'm just letting off steam. I know very well that he's good! But he isn't as good as I! We should have done it by ourselves, not used some damn hunter!"
"It's Crys' decision," Cain reminded him. "We are her companions, not the other way around. I guess you could go by yourself - but not as a member of our party. You'd be alone."
"I know. And you know I don't think it's worth it. But Crys should have chosen us instead! We know each other's abilities... as far as we chose to reveal them, at least. She can't fight together with them!"
"I won't interfere with this world's problems. I just observe... And I suggest that you do, too, this time." Reaching into the fire, Cain picked up a glowing piece of wood and turned it slowly in his hand, observing it, before, as the fire faded, he let it fall back into the flames. "It's not that I'm not worried about Crystal... but she knows that Mota's problems had better be solved by Mota's denizens."
"Sometimes I wonder if I should have told her that I'm a dimensional traveller," Averon muttered sourly. "Don't you?"
"Never. Not for the merest instant. And, I think, if you look into the depths of your own heart, you'll find that you don't regret it, either."
"I wish you wouldn't be so piss-damn serious all the time! What use is it being obnoxious if no one is affected by it?"
The road to Termi was a bit long, but not too difficult to travel; it was mostly desert all the way. The group was attacked by hungry sandworm babies a couple of times, but defended themselves with little effort; it was a long time since infant worms had been a threat to any of them.
It took them three days to reach Termi, a small town built on a hill, overlooking the sea in three directions: south, east and west. Naturally, Dark's party approached the town from the north.
"At last!" Jun sighed as Dark reported spotting the town. "I hate deserts!"
"You should'a stayed at home," came Dark's absentminded reply. The hunter was scanning his surroundings for anything that could tell him why he was there. As he had suspected, he saw nothing new.
Suddenly, the ground shook, throwing Tirom and Jun of their feet. Dark, Shane, Crys and, surprisingly, Silva managed to remain upright, although it was hard to do so.
"Earthquake!" Crys gasped. "But there aren't supposed to be any ground plates meeting here! It - it's impossible!"
"No it isn't!" Dark replied, somewhat unnecessarily. "Not at all! Be prepared for anything!"
As if it had only been waiting for him to say that, the sandworm started to burrow to the surface, causing the ground to tremble once more. No one fell this time, though, and the five drew their weapons.
The sandworm, the most feared predator ever to walk - or, as it were, crawl - Motavia, was indeed an impressive sight. Impressive or not, it was also extremely deadly. At least twenty meters long, it was big enough to swallow a Palman or Motavian whole.
As the worm surfaced, Crystal gasped. "That worm! It's not... right! I think maybe someone's... controlling it?"
"A 'feeling' again?" Dark asked. Crys nodded. "Damn! We don't stand much of a chance to beat a full-grown sandworm, but if it's controlled, we'll hardly be able to get away from it either!"
"We could try...?" Jun suggested. The worm was 'sniffing' the air, holding its 'head' several meters above the ground. Eyeless, it used scent to spot its prey. This didn't make it less accurate - or less deadly.
"Go ahead. You wouldn't be of any help anyway," Dark commanded.
"I'm not! I'm staying and don't you dare -"
Slowly, seemingly as unstoppable as a glacier, the sandworm was moving towards them...
"Tirom!" Dark snapped. "You must get them out of here!"
"I - them? What about you?"
"Come back for me after a minute or so! Get them into safety! To the city, it won't approach it... I hope..."
"I can take you too! Don't be daft!"
"I'll try to lure it away from Termi! If it's controlled, it might attack the town! But if I can lure it away, it's possible that it won't bother with Termi! Now go! Now!"
Knowing when not to argue, Tirom took Jun's hand, the thief grabbed Shane, and the huntress in turn grabbed Crys' cloak and Silva's hand.
"RYUKA!" commanded Tirom. The four faded out of existence, leaving a fading green afterimage. Dark smiled.
"Go get him! Now!" Shane shouted as they appeared next to the gates of Termi. A low wall surrounded the town, not meant to protect from assaults, but as a decorative element.
"Give him a few seconds!" Tirom snapped. "He told us to!"
"He won't last a few seconds against it! It'll kill him like this-" Shane snapped her fingers "-unless we do something!"
"You're right... I'll go. RYUKA!"
To Dark's surprise, Tirom reappeared almost instantly.
"Dark! Take my hand!"
"We can't let it attack Termi! If someone's controlling it, that person will suppose that's where we went!" He waved his sword at the worm, backing away. "Hey pinhead! Over here!"
"Don't you think he'll do that anyway? What does it matter if Termi's out of sight! He'll know it's there! Besides, he can't see it anyway! Have you forgotten that worms have no eyes?!"
Dark frowned. He had indeed forgotten that the sandworm didn't have any eyes - the way it moved, it was almost impossible to know that it didn't see, but relied on other senses. Damn! "I know! But I've got to do something!"
"Face it Dark, damn it! You can't! Now come with me!"
Dark hesitated. The worm was still coming towards him, very slowly, as if it wasn't sure about what to do.
"Curse it all!" he growled, then reached out and grabbed Tirom's hand.
And they disappeared.
"That was the most stupidest thing I've ever seen anyone who isn't out of his mind try to do and I'm not even sure about your mind!" Shane yelled as Dark and Tirom appeared. "What the hells did you think you were going to prove?"
"I didn't want that creature to come here... if we can't hope to defeat it, after years of training, what chance do you think the locals would stand? Or did you think they're all mighty warriors?"
"They aren't," Crys informed. "Termi is a peaceful village - they haven't got many warriors, or so I've heard. As for beating a sandworm... their chances are slim, to say the least. But, Dark, I could be wrong - maybe it was something else. I felt something... unnatural about that worm, but I only assumed it controlled because I expected an attack of some sort. Look at it now!"
They all looked. The sandworm had reached the place where Dark had been standing, and seemed to be searching the area. Not finding anything, it raised its 'head' and sniffed the air again, but the group was far away now, and it didn't seem to find anything. Satisfied that Dark and his companions were gone, it started to submerge in the sand again, causing a small tremor. In a few seconds, it was gone.
"Well, what do you think about this place? I mean, what do you think we'll find?" Shane asked Dark. He didn't answer. "Come on! It'll do you no good keeping your mouth shut."
"I'll go have a look at that statue..."
In the middle of Termi, almost like a city square, there was an open area, a small, green hill, where several species of bushes and flowers grew. And in the middle of that area, there was a statue depicting a woman garbed in clothes of what appeared to be an ancient design. She was wearing a sword at her hip, and by her feet, a small catlike animal was standing, part of the statue. The woman was smiling, although it was a sad smile. Dark made his way to the statue.
Statue of Heroine
"Alicia Landeele," he read on the base of the statue. "Funny name..."
"That's Alis Landale, Dark," Crystal corrected, appearing from out of nowhere. "I don't know why they put this name here... it's wrong. Alis was a heroine from fifteen hundred years ago."
"Howcome you know so much about her?"
"I've studied ancient history at the academy in Paseo. All the old books in the world are gathered in the academy, so it seemed the best place to start."
"Yeah. Alis was supposedly the queen of Mota, although I don't know how that could be possible, since the planet was always run by a governor. I suppose... a queen might be a female governor. As far as I know, the governors were always male."
"Feeling discriminated?" Dark wondered.
"Hardly! All the governors did was sit on their asses and wait for something to happen. Alis, on the other hand, is said to have fought a corrupt ruler - perhaps a governor, I don't know about that. And in the end... she saved all of Algo from a demon... known as-"
"Dark... Force!" Dark filled in.
Crystal jumped. "What!"
"I said 'Dark... Force!'" Dark repeated. "That's the name of the demon, right?"
"Dark... I won't even ask you how you know that. Yes, the demon that Alis defeated was later to become known as 'Dark Force', although originally, it was named Darkfalz in an obscure dialect... it means 'Darkforce', I believe. That very demon was the cause of the Collapse, too..."
"How could it? It died 1500 years ago," Dark asked, "didn't it?"
"So I've heard. But, I've also heard that Alis did nothing but banish the demon to another dimension. It returned a thousand years later... although I don't know how it came to be defeated that time."
"You've got some suspicions, though," Dark said. "I think I want to hear them. But," he added, "I think I'll reveal some knowledge of myself, first: I heard about Dark Force from the Esper I told you about. The Motavian Esper. I - well, Shane, Jun and Tirom were there, too - fought two demons that had been imprisoned a long time ago. Their names were Saghi and Saghy, or so the Esper said. Until rather recently, I haven't been thinking very much about that... but now that you told us that you suspect that magic is involved, I... well, it's a bit... you know.
"The Esper didn't tell me very much, but he said that the demons we destroyed had somehow been given life by something called 'the Darkforce'. That's how I knew about it. And as for Alis, well... I got lucky. Now, what was it that you were going to tell me?"
Crystal stared at him for quite some time. Dark resumed his examination of the statue, the cat in particular. There was nothing to tell what it was doing there - it could have been put there just as decoration, or it could have some significant meaning; a meaning that Dark couldn't begin to understand. "You are a very unique man," Crys said suddenly. Dark smiled, but, his back being turned to her, Crystal couldn't notice.
"I know," he said.
"Really, I mean it. You... believe! It's the best I can say... For some reason... Well, you understand, at least... Well, the second time Dark Force appeared - I've only heard vague rumours, or read them, to be more precise - there seems to have been a biomonster that saved us. A biomonster is a-"
"An artificial creature."
"...yes. Anyway, a bio - where was I? Damn it! Can't you just let me explain?"
"Sorry... No, I can't." Dark turned around and grinned impishly. "But please go ahead."
"Why you $#%*& hunter! Well, anyways, it seems that this biomonster created some kind of magical sword, which was used to defeat Dark Force. Please understand that this is just a very vague rumour - I've only read... well, hints, about it, in one book. Don't take it too seriously."
"Hmm..." Dark muttered. "What can you tell me about this cat?"
"What cat? Oh, that cat. I don't know. A pet?"
"No... it's more than that, or less... I can feel it! But, we'll never know... it's too long ago...
"It's probably not important anyway," Crys said. "Come on, let's take a walk around the town and see if we can find something out, then go back to the inn. The others will be waiting."
As Dark turned his back on the statue, he failed to see that it moved, ever so slightly...
"Have you learned anything?" Shane asked.
"Nothing," Dark said, grimacing. "No one seems to know anything, or they won't tell. There aren't any suspicious-looking people or buildings around, either. Only one guy... no, 'tis probably nothing."
"What? What?" Jun asked. The thief, now armed with the knife Dark had bought for him, seemed to be having the time of his life. Having fun! Dark sighed mentally at the sight.
"Someone said he'd seen a tower south-west of here, but it was probably a mirage of some sort," Dark said dismissively. "It was gone when he came back again the next day to explore. We found him in the pub, and the other customers told us to ignore him because he's been telling the same story for a week now. We might as well have a look - but I doubt it'll do us any good."
"I'm not that sure about it," Crys muttered to herself. "Dark, I'm afraid our... target may well have acquired the knowledge - and power - to build such a tower, which shifts in and out of this dimension. If he could modify Foi to that extent, building a... a... well, a phase tower, might very well be within his power."
"Crys is right, you know," Silva said quietly. During the journey, she had hardly uttered a word, but now that, finally, she did talk, everybody listened. "We may be up against something big... bigger than any one of us imagined."
"Well?" Crystal added pointedly. "I said we'll look! Tomorrow! When it's getting dark, because that was when he saw it! And I only said I doubt it, Crys, not that I know that we won't find anything! Damnit, if I didn't know better I'd be starting to think that you're just looking for things to argue about...!"
Dark woke with a start, not sure about what woke him, or even if it had been something. He did not believe it to have been a nightmare; he couldn't recall anything about what he had been dreaming, but he felt no fear. Dark, having experienced quite a collection of nightmares, considered himself something of an expert.
But if it hadn't been a dream... then what?
As silent as a shadow, Dark got out of bed and got dressed. Whatever had caused him to wake up had done its job well - he wouldn't be able to go to sleep again, at least not for quite some time. He decided to take a walk, instead, and see if that could help calm him down. Almost without thinking, as he pulled his cloak around his shoulders, Dark reached for his weapons, just to make sure he had them. The sword wasn't there; it was lying on the low table by the bed. The pouch holding the claw was there, though. It should be enough; he wasn't expecting any sort of trouble, and even without weapons, Dark could fight and cause almost as much damage with his bare hands, or cast techniques if it proved necessary.
The door was unlocked - the innkeeper didn't seem to expect anyone to come there with less than honourable intents, as if thieves were some kind of mythological animals that one might perhaps hear about, but never actually encounter. Dark smiled, but it was a sad smile. He hoped that the people of Termi would be able to go on living their simple, carefree lives without any interference. It was all too possible, though, that this would change - and change fast.
Dark, by nature a curious person, headed for the statue of Alis Landale. He had never before heard the name, but now, he suddenly wanted to know more about her - and the cat. Something was odd about it - the tail and ears were different from those of any other cat Dark had ever seen, and its expression was a lot more... human than cats usually displayed.
He was so busy studying the two statues that he failed to hear the soft rustling of the grass as someone walked towards him. Thus, he spun around and took combat stance as someone spoke, softly:
"She's beautiful, isn't she?"
"Silva!" Dark gasped. "You shouldn't sneak up on people like that - least of all on me! I could have killed you!"
"Could... but would you?" asked Silva.
"Er..." Dark tried to give a reply, but was too flustered to do so. "Whatd'ya mean, 'would' I?" he asked as he regained control of his mouth.
"Exactly what it sounds like: would you kill someone for 'sneaking up on you'? I never thought you would."
"Eh... it's not like I actually would do it as if I might do it, if you get what I mean... it's more like a reflex action. No, not if you just sneak up and scare me, I wouldn't hurt you... but if you had touched me, I might have. It's the result of too many dangerous hunting jobs, you see."
"Violence creates its own reflexes," she agreed. "If you are that far gone... you should quit. Maybe you shouldn't be a hunter."
"Maybe. But then, it's what I do, isn't it? If I quit, I'd have wasted years of my life, developing combat skills that would be useless in any other profession. Being a hunter, I get a chance to earn lots of money, and even though I kill sometimes, hunting saves lives, too. Also, if we hunters keep the number of 'monsters' down, more peaceful creatures, like most Palmans and Motavians, for example, will be able to move around more freely."
"But," Silva protested, "the sandworms were probably here before the Motavians, and certainly before the Palmans emigrated here. Would you kill them all just so the more 'intelligent' species can live?"
"No. I have nothing personal against sandworms. The adults never attack anything except to feed or when they're provoked, anyway, but the young ones attack everything. I wouldn't mind a world without sandworms, but then, I realise that they have a right to live here, too. All I ever do is kill the ones that attack me."
"Don't you think you could be a doctor?" she suggested. "You'd still be able to use your techniques, I assume, and you'd still be saving lives. As for money, most doctors charge a lot, too."
"Hmh! No, that wouldn't be anything for me. I need the danger, I think."
"There's nothing I can do..."
"Of course not!"
"That was not what I meant. Never mind, Dark."
"I don't mind. Nevertheless... Oh, well, I think I'll go get some sleep. Sleep well... that is, if you sleep at all."
As he was walking towards the inn, Dark thought he heard something behind him. He turned around.
"You can't expect me to fall for that twice-"
It wasn't Silva.
It was the statue. Walking very slowly, but holding its sword ready, it was advancing... and its target was, very clearly, Dark. Lying next to the statue's now-empty base, Silva was lying dead or unconscious, her green hair dark with blood. By her side, the mysterious cat lay on its side, knocked down by its former companion. The hunter looked at the statue's face, and his blood suddenly felt freezing cold. Where there had been a smile when last he looked upon the statue, there was now just emptiness. Nothing, neither sadness nor happiness, showed as the statue of Alis Landale closed in on him.
Dark had his Laconian claw ready in an instant, the drawing of a weapon almost as instinctive as breathing - yes, Silva had been right; it was a reflex of violence. But what good would it do him, against an enemy made from solid stone? Ducking a clumsy sword-swing, he tried to hack at the statue's arms, but the claw slid off the stone, causing only minor damage. As the thing swung again, low this time, Dark jumped over the stone sword and struck out at its face and eyes. His aim flawless, he managed to hit both of the statues' eyes with one single attack. The claw drew sparks, and small splinters of stone fell like tears. Still, the statue was unaffected, and Dark didn't even know if his attack had had any other effect than the cosmetic one. A normal woman should have been down after the first attack, incapable of wielding a sword, both her arms seriously wounded, and dead after the second, one solid Laconian claw through each eye. The stone Alis Landale, however, only took another swing at Dark. He ducked it and grabbed his opponent's arm. It had no effect at all. The statue's strength was so great that Dark's efforts had no effect whatsoever.
"D - Dark!" gasped Silva, shaking her injured head and struggling to sit up, "You cannot h - hope to defeat that thing! Run! Run! G - Get Crystal... and the others!"
"What for?" he shouted. "No use! If I can't - oops!" he dodged a fourth swing "- get to it, then - hey! - they couldn't, either!" As he jumped over the sword again, he kicked out, striking the statue's throat. It felt like hitting a wall, and 'Alis' didn't react. "Now I'm getting mad! Very well, have it your way then! If I can't hurt you with the claw... have some of this! GIFOI!"
From Dark's hands, an intense blast of fire shot, striking the statue's chest and throat. It caused the stone to glow red and crack in a few places, but nothing more. Dark slashed at the glowing area, but all he managed to do was get a mild first-degree burn on the knuckles of his left hand. To put some distance between him and his enemy, Dark backflipped a couple of times, then cast Res. His hand healed within seconds. As 'Alis' came closer again, he tried another tactic.
Air solidified into a circular shield in front of Dark, and as 'Alis'' next swing was halted in mid-air, Dark dropped to his knees, kicked out, and spun around, kicking again. Even if the statue weighed a lot more than a normal person, it was shaped as a Palman - and moved like one. Dark's kicks caught it off-guard, and it fell, its weight shaking the ground.
"Now I got you!" Dark growled triumphantly as 'Alis' struggled to rise. This proved difficult, as her body was far too heavy - even the statue seemed to lack the necessary strength. She was succeeding, though - slowly, but surely. Dark once more kicked out, striking her elbow. The statue fell again, and Dark jumped into the air as one massive hand reached out to grab his leg. "Still persistent!"
"What are you going to do?" Silva asked. "Y - You can't keep her - no, it - down forever, can you?"
"That remains to be seen! But no, you're right... I can't keep this up for long. I'd tire before it does... as if it would ever tire. No, I'm thinking... trying to figure something out." His next kick hit the statue's knees. It fell once more, but almost succeeded in grabbing Dark.
"Watch out!" Silva advised. "If it catches you, you'll be crushed!"
"I know that, miss," muttered Dark darkly. "I should have had a sword with me..."
"I'll run and get it for you," Silva promised, took a few steps, then had to lean on a tree to keep from falling. "Dark... good luck!"
"Don't be so quick about it! Come closer... closer!"
Silva slowly approached. Dark reached out to touch her forehead. "NARES!" he commanded. Silva blinked a couple of times in rapid succession.
"Thanks! I couldn't have done that myself, not in that condition... here, let me help. SHU... NER... That should help you... I'll be back as soon as I can!"
"The table by the bed," Dark informed. He was feeling better already - faster, stronger. He knew Ner himself, but had never heard of Shu. As Silva disappeared from sight behind a tree, Dark swept the statue of Alis from its feet again, this time avoiding its counterstrike with ease. But the techniques weren't going to last forever - Silva had better find his sword fast, or he'd be too tired when she came back.
"Hey Silva..." Crys mumbled sleepily as the door was opened and Silva's green haired head poked in. "What's the big hurry?"
"Dark's room! Where is it?"
"Oh? Really?" Crystal rubbed her eyes and sat up. "He invited you, did he?"
"No! That is - yes! I got to get there now! Which one is it?"
"To the right of this one... hey, isn't he a bit too old for you -?" Crystal realised that no one was listening. There was no one left to do so. "I wonder why she was in such a hurry?" she asked aloud. "Afraid he'd change his mind? Never mind." She laid down again and closed her eyes.
If she hadn't been so sleepy, she might have noticed that the excitement in the girl's voice was not the kind associated with romance of any kind; no, it seemed more like fear. But before Crys had a chance to register that fact, sleep reclaimed her.
Damn damn damn! Silva thought as she fumbled in the darkness to find Dark's sword on the small table by his bed. Of course, in order to do so, she first had to locate the table. Dark had put out the candle before he left, and so the room was pitch black. A tree just outside the window kept the starlight out. She couldn't see a thing... but... Finally! Her hand touched something cold, quite cylinder-shaped - the crossguard of Dark's sword! Tearing it from its sheath as she ran, Silva bumped into the door on her way out, but hardly noticed the pain. She had the sword!
"Dark! Dark! I have it!" Fearing what she might see, Silva ran towards the place where she last had seen Dark and the statue. What sight would meet her? The same as when she left... or Dark lying crushed on the ground?
He was still standing, but the statue was about to rise, and he did nothing to prevent it. As Silva approached, he turned towards her, his exhaustion showing clearly. At the sight of her, carrying his blade, hope seemed to rekindle, and some of the weariness disappeared, or was, at least, pushed down for a while. Dark yelled, "Throw!" and she did.
The titanium sword spun through the air...
The statue of Alis finally got to its feet...
Dark reached up and caught the sword easily, whirling around and dropping to the ground, rolling backwards, narrowly avoiding the stone sword...
"My turn! Chew on this you stone bitch!" And with those words, Dark summoned his Darkblade.
The sword instantly turned night black, blue fire fading into existence, caressing the steel and Dark's hand without any visible effect. Silva gasped as she saw the raw power focussed into the short sliver of titanium alloy, power that Dark was obviously certain would be enough to defeat this enemy.
Dark swung the sword, almost too fast for Silva's eyes to follow, and it connected with the statue's left arm at the shoulder.
There was a flash of silvery blue and black, and the arm fell to the ground, severed, together with the sword it had been holding. Silva nearly laughed as Dark took off the other arm on the backstroke, almost as an afterthought.
"Now you're not as cocky, are you!" he shouted in defiance. "You did your best - but it wasn't good enough! As I said - now it's my turn!"
One last time, he raised his sword, then let it fall. The light was blinding, the sound deafening, as the blade cut through stone, cleaving both head and torso.
Even before the pieces struck the ground, the statue started to fade, like morning mist under the sun. Seconds later, it was completely gone. Silva thought she heard a faint laughter coming with the wind from the east and south - an evil, maniacal cackle. Dark held his glowing sword over his head and called out,
"I am coming for you! Whoever you are, you are dead!"
"D- Dark!" Silva gasped. "Look - the statue!"
Jumping into the air, Dark spun a hundred and eighty degrees, coming down to face the now empty base which the statue had been standing on...
Only it wasn't empty anymore. Standing in the middle of it, Alis Landale was standing as if she had never done anything else. Even the cat was back where it had been before. Dark gasped and dropped his sword, the blue fire disappearing, seemingly absorbed into the sword, and the blackness vanished, leaving an ordinary-looking sword buried halfway in the loose dirt.
"It's not moving..." Silva mumbled. "I wonder... no, I can see no aura around it. It is just a statue again."
"I wonder how that could happen," Dark muttered to himself, picking his sword up, then slowly advanced.
The statue was smiling again, a small, sad smile - a smile that, Dark thought, even if the woman depicted hadn't been quite remarkable in herself, would have made her beautiful. He smiled, too, as he saw it.
"There's no danger," he said. "Look, she's smiling again."
Silva stepped forth to look for herself, and saw that this was in fact the case.
"She's beautiful, isn't she?"
"I think we've already said that," Dark replied, then turned to her and smiled again, to take any edge out of his words. Then he turned back, letting his gaze slide down, from Alis' eyes, past the smooth curve of her breasts and belly, over legs left bare by the strange divided skirt from mid-thigh to her knees, where boots took by, to stop at the sign telling the world that this was 'Alicia Landeele'.
"Alis Landale," he breathed. "You were a good person, I understand, and I know that if this had been you, not just a block of lifeless stone carved to resemble you, you would not have attacked me. I am sorry that we could never meet."
"I think she hears you," Silva whispered.
"I know she does," Dark said, his presumptuousness sounding somewhat irreverent after the serious words, but Silva, somehow, felt she couldn't complain. "Actually, even though she tried to kill me, she did me a favour... something I can't tell you, but... I think I finally understand something that's been bothering me for a while. And I think I know how to repay it." He pointed to the false nameplate with disgust. "Now! Let this woman be known to the world as... Alis Landale! NAFOI!" Orange, yellow, and finally white light blazed between Dark's hands, then flowed into the rock, which instantly turned bright yellow, almost molten. "GIZAN!" Dark continued. The air over the melting stone started moving, slowly at first, then quicker and quicker, finally becoming a thin, almost solid cone. Dark, sweating from the effort of controlling it, commanded the wind into a pattern.
As the technique faded, new letters were cut deep into the rapidly cooling stone:
Statue of Heroine
Dark, exhausted from his battle and the further casting of two powerful techniques, almost fell, but put a hand on the stone to steady himself. Grimacing, he pulled it away almost instantly and sat down, instead, holding his hand up and staring at it, a strange look in his eyes.
"Let me heal-" Silva asked, but he waved her into silence.
"Look!" he said, his voice strangely hoarse. Silva looked. In the palm of Dark's right hand, the word 'ALIS' was branded, turned as if viewed in a mirror. He had accidentally put his hand over the still-hot nameplate. "I - I think I... I'll keep the scar," he said. "But please, just Res, if you would."
"Yes! Of course - RES." Dark's wound started closing, leaving his hand almost but not fully healed. The wound, while it wouldn't hinder his use of the hand, would certainly leave a scar. "Won't people wonder... why you've got a mirrored 'Alis' in your palm?"
"Maybe I'll tell them to shove their questions the same way they shoved their brains," Dark suggested. "I don't give a shit what they ask, as long as it's my hand." He tried to rise, and succeeded after a couple of tries.
"Let me heal you again," Silva pleaded. "You can barely walk!"
"I'm too tired. It's not wounds, but fatigue - it wouldn't do any good. And it may remove the wound in my hand, as well."
"Won't any technique do that - even later, when it's a scar?" Silva wondered, struggling to get Dark's arm over her shoulders so that she could steady him.
"No." Dark pulled his arm away. "You don't have to do that. And no, techniques only heal true wounds - not old, already healed, damage. Stop it! I can walk by myself!"
"Oh no you can't! Now let me help!"
"Alright, alright then. If you have to." But he didn't mind leaning on Silva as they made their way back to the inn; actually, he found it quite a pleasant experience. "By the way," he asked as they were just reaching the front door, "how old are you?"
"Er... seventeen, why?" asked Silva, trying to hold on to Dark's arm and open the door at the same time. Dark relieved her of the burden by pulling his arm away.
"You've had to grow up way too quickly," he muttered. Silva stopped tinkering with the door and turned to look at him, surprised.
"What?" she asked.
"Nothing," Dark sighed, turning his eyes to the stars, "nothing at all..."
"So, Shane asked as they sat down to have breakfast, "I heard about your little adventure last night!"
"You did?" Dark and Silva asked, dumbfounded. "What adventure?"
"How did you do that?" asked Crystal, meaning the fact that Dark and Silva had been speaking in unison.
"What? What? What?" Jun asked, almost jumping up and down trying to get someone's attention. "What'ssofunny?"
"I trust she found your room, Dark?" Shane asked innocently.
"Eh?" Dark said. "Well, yes, but how did you-"
"How about the age, Dark?" his sister teased.
"What age? As I was saying, we never told-"
"You didn't? Didn't you ask Crys for directions, Silva?" Shane continued.
"Y - yes, I might," Silva confessed.
"And wasn't it a little bit harder to get you to out of bed this morning? Although I don't understand why you didn't stay where you were... Silva?"
Silva blinked rapidly several times, a sign that, Dark had assumed, showed confusion. Then she looked at him. He looked back. Suddenly, they both understood what Shane was trying to say, and they both burst out laughing, unable to stop.
"What's so funny?" Jun demanded to know, standing up. "I'm gonna start throwing eggs at people unless someone tells me!"
"You... mind... getting your eggs... fried?" Dark managed, then was overcome by laughing again. "Oh," he breathed after a while, "oww, I never use to laugh this... much... by the way, Crys, have, have, go have a look at Alis' statue again... before we leave... Not a hurry," he added as she almost started to rise. "Actually... it... it's a lot better... in the dark, isn't that right... Silva?"
And they started laughing again.
"Was it your doing?" Crys asked as they left Termi later that day.
"What was?" Dark wondered.
"You know very well what I mean!"
"You mean the statue...?"
"Oh, that. No, that wasn't me... Alis came to life and carved it herself, with that sword she carries... right, Silva?"
"Uh? Oh, yes, that's the way it was, yes," Silva mumbled, trying not to laugh.
"And I suppose..." Suddenly, Crys reached out and grabbed Dark's wrist, turning his hand palm-up and traced the branded letters with her fingers. "I suppose she did this as well?"
"You got me there," Dark said, scratching his chin with his free hand. "Well, I couldn't afford a tattoo, so..."
Crys hit him over the head with her bag. "Don't do that!"
"Me don't do what? You stop hitting me with that flea bag of yours!" Crys only stored clothes in that bag, but she wasn't exactly a weak woman, either. She could never hurt Dark with the soft bag, but it wasn't too pleasant getting it in his head, either.
"You did do that, didn't you." It wasn't a question.
"Yeah," Dark sighed, "I suppose I did. So what're you gonna go about it, tell the authorities?"
"No...," Crystal muttered. "Actually..." Looking down, appearing to suddenly develop a strong interest in Dark's hand, which she was still holding, she said, "I wanted to say 'thank you'," in a voice so silent that Dark could barely make out the words. "It was a good thing to do..." Letting go of his hand, she stared him straight in the eyes, and she added: "But if you tell anyone about this, you're one dead hunter!"
Dark laughed and patted her shoulder with his good hand. "Don't worry. Although I don't understand why a name is so important... to either of us."
"What's right is right, I suppose," Crys said. "Let's just forget about this conversation, right?"
They reached the edge of the peninsula in two hours. They could have done with less, but they didn't hurry; after all, it wasn't as if they were going to meet with someone on a particular time of the day. The sun wouldn't set for another hour, or possibly a bit less than that. It had almost been totally dark when the man had seen his tower, if he had seen it at all. The group sat down with their backs to a high dune to wait for something to happen.
The sunset was, as always when seen over water - somehow, Mota managed to be a dry world even though there was a lot of water in the seas - magnificent. But it didn't illuminate anything new, and the party was preparing to go back to Termi when suddenly, Jun saw something in the distance. Five pairs of eyes turned to the place he indicated. There was, however, little to be seen.
"It disappeared!" Jun exclaimed.
"Or someone is playing around with our minds," Dark added with some dismay. "I think I'll go have a look... closer." True to his word, Dark started walking.
"Hey!" Jun cried from the dune, "Don't get too close! If that's the tower and it solidifies when you're at the place it solidifies you're toast!"
Jun's words, if not very coherent, made Dark halt in his tracks. Of course! Their enemy might even anticipate such a move and expect to get rid of them in that way!
Then what? Dark pondered. Maybe... "Does anyone have anything against me throwing a fireball to see if I his something?" he wondered. "If the tower is there, but invisible, a technique would still hit it, and we'd know." But if it was there, but not there, then...
"Good idea," Shane said, "I think. Anyone else?"
There were no protests. Dark cast a simple Foi 'tech at the area where Jun had seen his 'something'.
It had a much greater effect than Dark had dared to hope for. Upon entering the area, the fireball simply shattered as if it was water, and the fire spread out over a large area. The air shimmered - and all of a sudden, a white tower, rather cone-shaped, was standing where a second ago, there had been nothing but sand.
"Waoooww!" Jun exclaimed. "Yowza! Got it, man!"
"Behave yourself," Shane chided. "Dark! What are we going to do now? I mean, like, we've found the tower, but..."
"We find a way to enter, of course," Dark snapped. "Don't you dare chicken out on me now, Shane!"
"Wasn't intending to," his sister muttered sullenly.
"Stop behaving like Jun! Come on!"
There was indeed a door, but it was closed - and, much to their dismay, locked from within. There was no lock or handle on the outside. Runes that no one in the company could decipher - possibly, the key to opening the doors lay in those runes - framed the large double doors. But as no one could tell what they meant, Dark and the others would have to find another way in.
"I could climb in through a window," Jun suggested, then looked up to locate a suitable window. "Or maybe not," he added, as all he could see was smooth, flawless white stone. There weren't any visible windows.
"I'm going in if I have to cut this door to pieces with my sword!" Dark fumed. "Stand aside! NAFOI!"
White-hot fire lanced from his hand, striking in the place where the doors met. The stone shook under the assault, but, unlike the statue in Termi, didn't melt or show any signs of heat. Crys shook her head.
"It is no use," she commented. "I don't think a broad attack like that is the answer. You must focus your strength in a small area to affect this material."
"I'll try," Dark said, then moved to the left, studying the place where the door met the wall. "If there are any hinges..."
"Try it," Crys suggested. Dark did, and this time, he concentrated the power of Nafoi into a thin, intensive beam that was too bright to look at. Everyone but the tech-user turned away.
The light vanished. They turned back. Where the ray had struck stone, the marble had melted, and there was a small hole through the door. "Great!" Crystal encouraged. "It's possible to damage it! I was almost starting to fear that it'd be impossible!"
"No it ain't," Dark said, "but I hope it won't take too long to do this. I'm starting to feel tired already."
"I'll help you," Crys offered, kneeling down in front of the place where the doors met. "If there's a bar or something here... I think I can see something! Why didn't I think of that earlier...? We might not have to cut the doors loose from the walls - we might be able to cut the bar!"
"Oh, great," Dark muttered, "Now she tells me...!"
"Don't sweat it," Crys smiled. "I'll have a try."
Dark, who was doing exactly that - sweating - looked her over suspiciously. "You a tech-user?"
"Not as good as you, but I have some little ability," Crys admitted. "If I can just hit the bar..." Placing her hands over the thin line where door met door, she cast something that looked like Gifoi. Shaking her head, she cast again - and something fell on the inside of the doors! Rising to her feet, Crys leaned against the right door. It slowly swung open, pulling something on the inside of the door away. Dark carefully peeked in, ready to withdraw at any sign of danger. There was a very large room inside - probably as big as the base of the tower, minus the walls. Pushing the door fully open, he motioned for the others to follow, then entered.
The bar was lying on the floor, cut in half. "Neat," Dark said approvingly as they passed it. Crys shrugged.
"Luck," she said dismissively.
"Certainly. But skill, too," Dark said, a finite tone in his voice warning Crys not to argue. Wisely, she didn't.
They reached a wide staircase that led up, and followed it carefully, expecting an attack at any moment. It never came. They reached the second floor, and found themselves in a smaller room, from which two exits were visible: one to the right, the other to the left. Dark, hesitating only for a second, took the right one.
And almost ran headfirst into a statue which was blocking the way. It appeared to be a half-man-half-bird, for it had the body of a heavily muscled Palman man, but the head of an avian predator, and wings to match. The wingspan would be too great to fit in the corridor. The statue was clad in some kind of knee-length robe, which flared dramatically, or at least in a way that was certainly meant to look dramatic.
"Whew! I hope..." Dark looked towards Silva, who didn't see him, but looked at the statue.
"Can you squeeze by?" asked Crys.
"I can," Dark replied insolently, "but you... ladies will have to do something about certain parts of your anatomy, or you'll get stuck." Before she had a chance to hit him, he slipped past one massive stone leg. It was a narrow gap, but he made it, although his sword was caught on the statue's robe and he had to pull it loose before he could go on. Crys, Shane, Jun and, finally, Silva followed him, without any complications - although Dark was almost proven right when it came to Crys. Eyeing the statue from behind, Dark felt himself shiver at the thought of fighting that monstrosity in such a confined space. Not wanting to exhaust himself too much, however, he didn't attempt to destroy the statue - he just hoped like hell that it'd stay put and not come alive, too. Shaking off some unease, the group continued onwards.
There was something about the tower, a kind of expectant silence, as if it was holding its breath waiting for something to happen. It was starting to bother Dark. If there had been any real forests on Mota at the time, he might have recognised it as the kind of silence that is only experienced in the woods, when every living creature is trying to hide at the approach of a great predator. But there were few places on Mota where such things happened, and Dark only knew that the silence was bothering him. His companions seemed to feel the same, even Jun, normally a very lively person, was trying not to break the silence. Every little noise made them jump, hands to their weapons. Dark had his claw ready in his left hand, but his right never strayed far from the shortsword's hilt.
After a while, they reached a second set of stairs, a much narrower one, and climbed it. This time, they ended up in a smaller room, between two man-sized statues, both looking like the bird/man they had seen earlier, one male and one female. Dark, upon seeing the female statue, finally realised what it made him think of: a harpy. Harpies were mythological creatures with features of both human women and birds, and were said to have some kind of magic power... Dark tried to remember, but couldn't recall what.
"A harpy?" Crys asked, confirming Dark's suspicions. "Didn't they have the power to turn people to stone? No, that was cockatrices. Hmm."
"They aren't moving yet, anyway, Dark muttered. "I suggest we get the hell out of here before they do." They did.
This time, they had to walk in a spiralling corridor, as if the builders had meant this level to be as long as possible. It took them almost half an hour to reach the next set of stairs - only to find it blocked. And this time, it wasn't a statue that blocked their way, but a creature of living flesh and blood. And, from its expression, a creature that wasn't too friendly inclined towards them.
"More mythology!" Crys growled silently. "It's a centaur or I'm a sandworm."
"Eh," Dark said, "Hello, stranger."
"Stranger." The centaur was a creature that looked much like a gold-furred horse, but where the horse's head and neck should be, it had the upper body of a human. That upper body now crossed its arms over an impressive barrel-like chest, while the horse's tail made lashing motions and one front hoof scraped the floor. "You are the strangers here!" the centaur accused. "Begone at once!"
"I'm afraid we need to talk to the owner of this tower," Dark said diplomatically. "Why don't you take us to him?"
"What for? So that you can attack him? Try something else, intruders! But do it quickly; my patience is running out!"
"I don't know if it'll come to combat," Dark said truthfully. "But if it does, it will be because I know that I am attacking a ruthless killer! Now stand aside - or do you want me to believe that you've got something to hide?"
"<Horse's bottom>," Dark said in flawless Motavian. Tirom giggled. "Let us pass! There will be no trouble unless we can be sure about this!"
"Noo... I'm sorry, I can't let you pass." Suddenly, a glowing sword appeared in the centaur's hand. "I am afraid that won't do..."
But it didn't attack. Dark sensed that this creature was not very happy about the prospect of meeting six opponents in battle. "Let's duel," he suggested. "If you win, we leave, try something else. If I win, you let us pass."
"Can I trust you?"
"Can I trust you?" Dark countered. "Shane, I'll need a longsword. You others, get back. If I go down, you get the hell out of here."
"Dark!" Shane protested. "You can't... can't do this!"
"Shut up!" he snapped, snatching the sword from her grasp and swinging it through the air a couple of times to judge its balance. It was as good a weapon as he remembered. "You do as I tell you! Or else..."
"Else what?" Shane asked. "If you die...!"
"Now do as you're told and don't argue with me!"
"Sure... sure... whatever." Shane reluctantly backed away.
"First blood?" Dark asked. The centaur shook his head.
"No. There has to be some significant damage. First to yield."
"Alright. An garde!" The weapons met, crossing between Dark and his opponent.
It was an impressive battle. Despite the confined space, Dark and the centaur managed to dance around for several minutes before either one was wounded. Shane, while worried about her brother, was suddenly very glad that the man-horse hadn't accepted Dark's offer of first blood, as the hunter was the first to bleed. The shimmering sword held by his opponent seemed as light as air, and it was a lot sharper than the weapon Dark wielded - even titanium swords couldn't be sharpened to a keen, cutting edge, because the thinness of the metal would make the blade brittle. As it was, if Dark's weapon had been sharp in the beginning, the repeated parrying and attacking would soon have blunted the edge.
Dark had seen the centaur as a rather peaceful creature, only striving to do his job - keeping intruders out of the tower - but as their eyes met during the fight, he realised that he'd been wrong. As it concentrated on combat, the centaur let its mask slip - and what lay below that mask was unpleasant. This was an evil being, and Dark regretted his offer of a duel. This was one opponent that wouldn't hesitate to kill him, even if he yielded. After all, if the others attacked, well, Dark would be out of the way, reducing their number to five.
"You thought you were very clever didn't you!" he growled to himself, his voice too silent for anyone to hear. "You equine bastard!"
A few seconds later, the centaur seemed to tire of the duel, for it broke the first law of duels: unless it had been agreed before the duel started, nothing but normal melee weapons were to be used. Instead of swinging its sword at Dark, however, the centaur backed away, raised its hand, and sent a brilliant white ray of energy flying towards the hunter's chest. Dark deflected the bolt with the flat of his blade and felt the metal turn uncomfortably warm under his hands. "Do you want to change the rules?" he asked. Sneering, the centaur sent another blast towards Dark, who ducked it with relative ease. "Have it your way! SKYBLADE!"
The centaur seemed shocked as Dark's sword changed, turning black. Silvery white sparks faded into existence in the blackness. Dark raised the sword, holding it with both hands. "Come on!" he yelled. "Coward!"
The centaur replied by firing another ray.
Dark swung his sword, deflecting the ray at a precise angle. Striking the centaur's raised arm at the wrist, the bolt almost tore its hand from the arm. The centaur screamed, and Dark charged.
"Stop!" his enemy commanded as Dark closed. "I y-"
The black sword burst through his throat and silenced the words forever. Dark withdrew the blade, wiped it on the centaur's short horse's fur, then handed it back to Shane without comments.
"Why did you... it was about to yield..." Silva said silently, looking at the centaur. "You..."
"Look, Silva, it was his own fault. He didn't follow the rules of the duel. And he would have killed me anyway, if I yielded - I saw it in his eyes. I can't leave such an enemy behind. Trust me, I did what I had to."
"It's so hard to believe! He looked so noble..."
"But wasn't," Dark finished. "Let's go."
They passed another floor, a decidedly smaller one, and finally climbed the last set of stairs, reaching the top of the tower. It consisted of one single room without walls, the roof being held op by ornate columns. In the middle of the room, however, there was a low stone wall, waist-high, which seemed to protect something from the wind. The six companions advanced, and finally saw that the 'something' was a shelf of books, a low wooden table and a chair. It looked like a small library.
"Why would anyone-?" Shane started, but was interrupted.
"So you think you can sneak in while the owner is out?"
"Who are you!" Dark shouted, drawing his sword. "Show yourself!"
"Dark Gray," the bodiless voice observed, "and your sister, as well. And some friends. My, my, are you tired? Was the journey tiresome? Or did my guardians bother you? Not? Oh, I'm so glad to hear it! It wouldn't be any challenge if you were tired!"
"You! You!" Dark shouted. "It was you in the guildhouse! Your voice! I remember it - you killed that girl! And tortured the other one!"
"Oh, but they were unimportant people," the invisible speaker said. "Not like you or me! It was all a test, my friend."
"A test! You killed people to test me?" Dark roared. This was more than he could take! Almost as if it had a mind of its own, black and blue fire streamed between his hand and the short sword.
"Ah," the speaker said, laughing, "hahaha, he's angry! Why, I never imagined that the lives of some dim-witted dancing whore would trouble you so!"
"They were living beings, you bastard!" Dark yelled back. "Living beings! I don't care what they do for a living, they were people! Like me! And you - show yourself! Or I'll burn everything up here to cinders! Starting now!" Fire lanced from his hands, striking - nothing! An invisible dome over the books protected them from the fire.
"Nono, that's too rude!" the mocking voice said. "I think it calls for some... punishment!"
At that moment, three beams of emerald green shot from the ceiling, fading... to reveal three identical young men. Dressed in black, they were of medium height, but very slim. All three had a dangerous glow, like fire, in their eyes.
"Careful!" Dark instructed.
"Indeed!" their hidden aggressor laughed. "Be careful! These are... my children! The ones who killed that old fool who created this tower, Yangour! The only ones but me who command... the new technique!"
As the voice spoke, three identical hands pointed towards the group. When the voice faded, the three young men spoke in unison:
The surprise almost killed Dark. Neofoi! The fourth Foi...?
Crystal hit him at waist level, toppling him to the floor and out of the way of the three white-hot rays. Looking more like Tsu than any Foi technique Dark had ever seen, the rays were liquid fire, and the intense heat they generated was almost unbearable even from almost one meter away.
Almost as soon as the fire vanished, Crys was on her feet, pulling two slashers from their sheaths and throwing them in one smooth motion. Circling gracefully, the blades moved in to strike the trio from the sides. Calmly, two turned and cast, "DEBAN." The slasher to the left managed to get past the barrier of air, cutting a shallow gash over one man's forearm and a deeper wound in the second one's chest, missing the third one, then finally returned to Crys, who caught it expertly. The other slasher, however, struck the Deban shield, slowed down, then fell. Crystal cursed and drew a third slasher from a sheath that had been hidden on her back, under the grey cloak.
"Damn!" she exclaimed. "What are we going to do?"
"I'll think of something! Dark muttered, then, still lying down, fired a blast of Gizan. Once upon a time, it might have worked - but Dark was nowhere near Yangour's strength, and the trio had learned much since that encounter. It didn't seem to hurt the group much, but at least had the effect of shattering their Deban shields. As the whirling winds calmed, Crys once again threw her slashers. This time, there was no time for any defensive techniques, and the blades bit deeper this time before returning to Crys' hands. Dark somehow managed to notice that the new slasher, the one Crys had been carrying hidden beneath her cloak, had slightly more curved blades, forming a sort of crescent C rather than a V. It appeared to work at least as well as the other one, though.
Jun, Silva, Tirom and Shane were all but useless in a battle like this, and they knew it. None of them had any useful long-distance weapons, except for a few knives, and it would be foolish indeed to assume that they would survive a direct attack on the trio. Of course, Jun did know Tsu, but it was weak indeed when compared to Dark's Nafoi. He had almost mastered Githu, as well, but it was still unpredictable; half of the time, it didn't work at all, and sometimes missed the target entirely when it did work. Also, he wasn't as strong as Dark, and couldn't use even Tsu more than a couple of times in a row. Knowing this, the thief decided not to tire himself - it would be useless anyway. Now they would have to rely on Dark and Crystal...
Another blast of three Neofoi rays sent Dark and Crystal tumbling towards the edge of the floor. The rays had narrowly missed them, yet Dark felt blisters arise on his back and shoulders, which had been closest to the fire. "Dark!" Crystal snapped, "We have to act now! Before they get a chance to fire again!"
"I realise that!" Dark replied, rising to his feet, "but how?"
"Let's try... at the count of three, cast the strongest Zan technique you know! Okay?"
"Right! I just hope you know what you're doing..."
A small smile passed over Crystal's lips, almost too quickly for Dark to see it, and she said, "So do I. I've never done this before..."
"Now! One. Two. Three!" She made a throwing motion, whispering something. Dark Cast Gizan.
It wasn't as if the wind he summoned was pulling Crys' fire into it. Dark, while the effects astounded him, could see that it was the energy flows, the powers that actually summoned fire and wind, that entwined and became one. Pillars of whirling fire rose from the ground, reaching the roof. Several times the size of a Nafoi fire beam, the firestorm cut over the three identical tech-users like a scythe, striking two to the ground.
"Wow!" Dark whispered, for once unable to hide his surprise. "What was that?!"
"It's called a Firestorm," Crys explained. "Later! We have to attack now - take advantage of the situation!" She acted as she spoke, rushing forwards, towards the man who was still standing. The other two were about to rise, but were slow in doing so, obviously hurt badly. Dark started running, too, readying his sword, which was still encased in blackness and blue flames.
Crystal reached the man first, but he was expecting her. A blast of Gifoi cast her reeling backwards. Dark was too close behind her to be stopped - the man had no time to cast again. Nor would he ever have it. Dark's sword, capable of cutting stone, slashed through his chest like a warm razor through butter, throwing the man over the edge, sending him falling to the sandy ground far below. About to attack the second tech-user, Dark was too busy to see the third one raise his hands and cast...
Gifoi tore a hole in Dark's cloak and struck him to the ground. Falling badly, Dark managed not to hit his head too hard, but couldn't avoid the collision. Everything went black...
He woke up some time later, and found himself looking up at Shane. He could feel the effects of her healing technique repairing his body, and struggled to sit up. It was easier than he had expected. Standing slowly, he suddenly became aware of where he was and looked around -
There was just one of the dark-clad tech-users left. The other one was lying on the ground, his throat slit. The man was very obviously dead. His comrade, however, was doing well against Tirom and Crys. He had erected some kind of barrier, maybe another Deban, to protect him, and it was doing its job well, keeping knives and slashers alike from hitting him. However, maintaining the barrier seemed to require all his concentration, making him unable to cast any offensive techniques. It was all a matter of endurance - if he tired first, Tirom and Crystal would be able to finish him, and vice versa.
"Don't even think of it," Shane warned. "I have to heal you a bit more. You're too weak to help them now, anyway!"
Dark grumbled and muttered, but let Shane, foolishly not accepting Silva's offer to help, cast Res on him again. As soon as she was done, however, he rushed to help his friends.
"Oh, oh oh, not very sportsmanlike, is it?" asked the still-invisible one. "Three against one!"
"You'll join your 'children'!" Dark swore. "Crystal!"
"I can' talk now! I'm busy!" Crys informed. "Later!"
"Hold it!" Dark shouted, grabbing her wrist just as she was about to throw again. "Give me that slasher!" Not waiting for any kind of reply, he grabbed the curve-bladed slasher and tried to summon the Darkblade power. Maybe to his surprise, he succeeded - the slasher's bluish metal turned black, with blue fire outlining its contours. "Now!" he shouted, "throw it! I don't know how long the power remains when I'm not holding the thing!" Passing the slasher back to Crys, he impatiently pointed to the tech-user. Crys wasted no time - she took aim, then threw. It was a throw unlike any other she had made - a throw meant to cause as much damage as possible, not to make the slasher return to her hand.
Propelled by more than Crys' muscles, the slasher flew towards its target...
The shield shattered as the enhanced weapon passed through it, peppering the black-clad man with splinters of solid air.
The slasher struck his chest and passed right through his ribs, throwing the man from the floor, over the edge, to join the one Dark had killed. "Ah! Utterly delightful!" the hidden adversary laughed, applauding. The laughter held a hint of madness, suggesting that the speaker was not entirely sane. "Very good! I now see that you're worthy!"
"Another test?" Dark asked. This time, his voice didn't show uncontrollable anger. There was an icy edge, however, that made Shane shiver. She knew her brother's moods, and this was perhaps the most dangerous one. "Why don't you show yourself?"
"I don't want to! I'm going to make you an offer, Dark Gray - a most profitable one."
"Tell me." The icy edge became colder still, and sharper. "I'm listening."
"I plan on making myself the ruler of all Mota!" the invisible one said. "I have been searching for someone who is worth my notice - someone to be my right-hand man. I am offering that position to you, Dark Gray! You have proven your worth to me!"
"What if I accept?" Dark asked. Shane shivered again.
"Then you'll rule Mota with me! You'll be second to no one but me. You could do anything! Join me, Dark Gray, and we can rule the world together!"
"It's tempting... I accept!"
"Dark! You can't be serious!" Shane gasped.
"Silence!" Dark growled.
"But Dark -"
Dark's fist shot out. Shane fell to the floor, unconscious. "Don't question me!" hissed the hunter. "I accept!"
"I knew you would," the hidden one said. Suddenly, a ghostly image appeared, hovering a few centimetres over the floor. It was the image of a middle-age man with fiery red hair and piercing green eyes, his skin wrinkled and tanned. He wore a black robe trimmed with green, and carried a long, heavy staff in his hands. He was handsome, but deep in his green eyes, madness sparkled like diamond dust. "Then kneel before me, Dark Gray! Swear to obey me, and I shall give you unlimited power over Motavia!" He threw his head back and laughed. It was the same evil, maniacal cackle that Dark had heard in Termi. The hunter knelt. His four companions stared at his back.
"Y - you can't... can't! You can't do this!" Silva whispered, voicing everybody's thoughts.
The robed man hovered closer. "Swear to me now!" he commanded.
"I swear," Dark said, bowing his head, "to fulfil my earlier oaths and destroy you! NASHAR!"
Dark had never actually used this version of his own Shar technique before, and the effects managed to surprise even him. Much like the tunnel of swirling air that Zan created, a tower of black and silver lightning rose from the floor, reaching and striking through the roof. The ghostly man shook as the lightning tore through his half-solid body, but that wasn't the end of it all. Suddenly, the black-and-silver bolts stopped moving, then collapsed inwards, sending blades of solid electricity falling down over the black-robed man, who screamed in pain, anger and fear.
"Revenge!" Dark roared, swinging his sword. The Darkblade effect had worn off when he fell unconscious, and the weapon passed through the man, harmless.
"You cannot harm me!" the man screamed, despite evidence that Dark could indeed harm him. "I am power incarnate!"
"He really is mad," Crys muttered, throwing her slashers. They had the same effect as Dark's sword - none. Laughing, the man spread his arms and called upon Nazan. An enormous whirlwind arose, throwing everyone but its caster off their feet, throwing them away from the man. Dark grabbed a pillar and held on to it, while Crystal managed to grab his cloak and hang on to it. Shane and Silva found another pillar to hold on to, but Tirom and Jun were not so fortunate. Desperately scrabbling for something to hold on to, the thief and the half-Motavian reached the edge of the floor - and fell. A second later, the winds stopped. All they could hear was their enemy's cackling laughter. Letting go of the pillar, Shane ran to the edge, looked down and saw -
Nothing. There was a place halfway down where the wall was blood-splattered, but no bodies on the ground, no more blood. Then, before she could think, a flash of green light announced the arrival of Tirom via her Ryuka technique. Falling to her knees almost as soon as she appeared, Tirom dropped Jun on the floor as she collapsed. They both seemed wounded, but not fatally so. Although no one spoke, every member of the group was relieved to see them safe.
"You are lucky," Dark rasped, "that they are alive! Or I would have killed you slowly!"
"Don't waste your breath, puny creatures!" their adversary laughed. "Feel!"
The tower shook. A few seconds later, it shook again. "I control it! Even if you defeat me, it will devour you as you exit!"
Dark looked over the edge and saw a sandworm throwing itself against the smooth wall, leaving blood on the white marble. "You may have escaped it once," the robed man continued, "but not this time! Have a taste of power, cretins! GIGRA!"
Powerful waves of extreme gravity assaulted the party, striking most of them to the ground again. More than one felt bones snap as the gravity waves passed them, and Dark, already wounded, felt his consciousness slip away again...
then a clear voice spoke words of healing - "GISAR." Dark managed to turn his head and look at Silva. Her hands were raised, and bright bluish purple flames illuminated everything around her. As the light reached Dark, he felt his body start to heal, bones start to knit back together. Suddenly, he found it very easy to stand up.
"Way to go Silva!" Crys said.
Dark started running.
A Neofoi beam barely missed his head, almost setting fire to his hair. Another beam cut through flesh and bone alike, leaving his left arm hanging useless by his side. Beyond pain, Dark never stopped running, reaching the robed one just as he prepared to cast a third Neofoi.
"No!" Dark commanded. "Never! DEBAN!" Thrusting his right hand through his insubstantial enemy, he caused the technique to take effect.
Solidifying the air that his enemy was merged with not only caused the madman excruciating pain, it also broke his spell, made him solidify. Barely pulling his hand away in time to avoid getting it trapped within his enemy, Dark grabbed the black robes and lifted the techmaster of the floor. "You... are... d e a d." Dark channelled all his anger into a single Shar technique. Black lightning shot from his hand, through the black-robed man, sending his enemy flying through the air. Dark hurried after him and saw the black spot fall... and fall... and fall...
As the man had said, the sandworm did attack anything that came out of the tower. As Dark - and Motavia - saw the last of the mysterious madman, he was being slowly devoured by a pain-maddened sandworm, which, wisely, chose to start with his legs. As Dark fell to the floor, the faint pain-filled, far-away screams of his opponent was the last thing he heard. And he enjoyed every second of it.
The world slowly returned to Dark Gray, and he noticed that he was lying on his back on a stone floor. His head, however, was placed in someone's lap, and that someone was holding a hand on his forehead, muttering healing techniques. Dark surmised that this 'someone' must be Silva, since Shane only knew Res, and the hand on his forehead seemed smaller than Crys'. He opened his eyes, and found himself staring up into five pairs of worried eyes.
"Congratulations ms. healer, it's a boy," Crys said, betraying a great feeling of relief.
"I certainly hope so," Dark said, and felt himself smile weakly. "Do I ask 'where am I' now or do I wait 'til you're unarmed?"
"Dark Gray, don't you ever scare me lie that again!" Shane demanded, then embraced him carefully.
"Ouch!" muttered Dark, not because it hurt but because he was starting to feel embarrassed.
"I know he wouldn't croak," Jun said nonchalantly.
Dark shook his head, then looked up at Silva. "Good job you've done," he said. "I feel like I could run and jump."
"Oh no you won't!" Silva said, sounding as if Dark had shocked her. "You're going to take it easy! For several days!"
"Well, if that sandworm hasn't left yet, I may have to. Is it gone yet?"
"It left as soon as it had eaten that guy," Tirom said. "But I can Ryuka us out, remember?"
"Of course you can. Well-" Dark sat up "- perhaps we should move?"
"We'll have to destroy the library," Crys said. "It's bound to contain things better left forgotten."
"Don't!" Dark gasped. "I must do that... myself."
"I... see," Crys said. "Now lie down and rest a while. If you feel up to it, we'll leave when you wake up.
Dark closed his eyes, deciding to do as he'd been told. The light touch of Silva's hand on his forehead was the last he felt before falling asleep.
Dark insisted on burning the books himself, and did - after first looking through the shelf to see if there was something useful. Only two books captured his interest, and he discretely put them in his pack - surely, two books couldn't be dangerous, and not in his possession - then cast Foi to ignite the dry papers and parchments. Only one blast was needed. The books burned easily, leaving little to show that they had, in fact, been books. As soon as they had made sure that nothing remained, the party began the long walk down. They met no centaurs this time, and no trace remained of the strange statues they had seen. Perhaps everything they saw had been illusions.
The two dead men were real enough, however, and still lay on the east side of the tower. They didn't look any better after the long fall - they looked repulsive even in the darkness - but Dark approached them and located Crystal's slasher, which was still buried deep within the man's chest. Pulling it loose, he wiped it on the man's cloak, then held it out to its owner.
"No," Crys smiled, "you keep it... as a memory." Dark shrugged and folded the weapon, then tucked it behind his belt.
As they reached Termi, they spotted two large figures outside the village. As they came closer, they recognised Crys' two partners, Cain and Averon.
"Well, I assume it went well," Averon said as they came close enough to talk. "Did you find the guy?"
"We did," Crys confirmed. "What are you doing here?"
"We came to offer you a lift," Cain said. "Since your mission is over, I mean."
"How did you know?" Dark challenged. Averon smirked.
"You're here, aren't you? That fight illuminated the desert for miles. We simply guessed. By the way, how did it go?"
"As we suspected... the 'fourth level technique' - he used the prefix Neo - was almost erasing the thin line between magic and techniques," said Crys. "It would be disastrous if such power was unleashed - Mota isn't ready for it, and it may never be."
"Why is that?" Dark asked. "If we had magic, it'd be a hell of a lot easier to live..."
"And to kill," Crys replied. "People aren't ready for magic yet. It's for the better, Dark - trust me."
"Oh... well, that explains it, then."
"Yeah," Crys said. "How do you think the different 'levels' of techniques were created, by the way?"
"No idea," Dark confessed. "I just made mine up... and then galled it Gishar when I found a way to increase the power I put into it."
"In fact, that's the opposite way. The last - the most powerful - techniques were created first. Gifoi and Foi are reduced versions of Nafoi...
"What's that supposed to be good for?" Dark wondered.
"Because," Cain said, "few have the mental strength to harness that amount of power. And how often do you need a flame that is hot enough... to melt stone?"
"Or something like that," Crys agreed. "That pretty much sums it up." "It does that, yes," Averon agreed. "How about it, Crys?"
"Yeah... I guess it's time to move on. Guys, we can take you to Aiedo if you want..."
"No need," Tirom assured her, "but thanks for the offer."
"See you, Crys," Averon said, then spun around once and disappeared in a shower of emerald green sparks.
"Will we meet again?" Dark asked as Crys and Silva went to join Cain. Crys stopped, seemed to consider the question.
"Probably not," she said finally, then returned to shake hands with the group. As she came to Dark, however, she kissed him instead, full on the mouth.
"Gmhp mah af hr?" Dark asked. This close, he couldn't help but notice that there was a faint, quite pleasant scent of cinnamon around her, and wondered if it was a perfume - one that he had never heard of, in that case. A bit breathless, Crys let go of him and asked,
"I said 'what was that for?'" said Dark.
"A way of saying thanks... and goodbye," Crys replied with a wink. "You're quite an interesting person, Dark!"
"Full of surprises," Dark agreed. "Hey, I liked that," he added, then pulled her towards him and kissed her. When finally they let go of each other, Jun was trying very hard not to laugh, while Shane was shaking her head and Tirom trying to decide whether to do as Jun did or follow Shane's example. "You'd better give Jun a kiss too," Dark said as Crys was about to step away, "or he'll be jealous."
Crys turned to look at Jun, then back to Dark. "I don't think that will be necessary," she said. "Okay, Cain! We're ready!"
Silva and Crys raised their hands to wave. Before they had a chance to lower them again, the group faded away and vanished.
"I wonder what she meant," Jun said thoughtfully as they made their way towards the inn. "Not 'be necessary'? That's a bit odd, isn't it? I mean, if she doesn't want to that's one thing, but that's odd. Really odd. Right, Dark?"
"No, Jun," Dark said calmly, "it isn't."
"Why isn't it?" the thief wondered.
"Don't you see? She thinks you'll meet again."
"So you weren't in love with Silva," Shane said, "or you'd be kissing her goodbye instead. What did you do that night, then?"
"In love with her?" Dark laughed. "No... I just liked her, as a friend. And as for that night... you'd never believe it."
"I believe that is indeed the case," Shane sighed. "Sometimes I really don't understand you, Dark."
"That is as it should be," her brother replied, smiling, then pulled the slasher from his belt and started turning it in his hand.
"You in love with Crys, then?" Shane teased, seeing the blade.
"No..." And indeed, Dark's thoughts were far from the mysterious woman. He wouldn't voice those thoughts to anyone, of course. Dark was usually a silent man. But not speaking didn't mean not thinking. Dark smiled as he walked. In his hand, a piece of bluish metal reflected the sun. For a moment, he almost considered speaking up, but decided against it. Stopping for a moment to look at the red glow of Algo's sun rising over the horizon, Dark tucked the Laconian slasher behind his belt again, then resumed walking.
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