Influence From The Shadows

Lake Sparking Towers

Water Glitters Like Tears

The sun had begun its descent over the plains outside of Farna as the adventurers traveled across the soft hills and bountiful fields. From afar those that worked in those fields only saw a peaceful group making their way in the world, traveling wherever their feet might take them. More then one farmer or herder had taken a break from their day to smile and wave at the group in the distance, possibly receiving a wave in return from one of the women on horseback.

Those that the group past more closely, or that listened intently, could tell that things were not as peaceful as they may have looked from afar. A strange music filled the air around them, rapid and quick notes that wrestled and battled in flurries. This way and that the song went, high and low, staccato notes lashing against each other with fists of music. Taiko’s fingers continued to set these conflicting notes outwards, providing music for the continuing argument between Shadow and Jormangander.

“He would not suspect a group of poor travelers or fishermen to be a threat to him,” Shadow implored, gesturing to the others that wore clothing quite different from their usual attire. “We would be ignored, and then have the opportunity to get close enough for you to use your hammers all you want.”
“Ha,” scoffed back Jormangander. “This man destroyed an entire tavern in fires just to try and kill us. If I were him I’d kill anyone that got close to my home so that I could keep it more hidden. All your disguise will do is give more material to burn.”
“There is no reasoning with you,” Shadow hissed once more.
“He keeps realizing this, but he still insists on trying to convince him,” sighed Sophia from her seat behind Lynn. “Can’t we try to lose them for a while to get some peace? Let’s see how fast your horse can go.”
“It would be nice to be able to relax and enjoy the weather and open air,” Lynn smiled back. A flick of the reigns and a light kick to the flanks sent Valkyrie into a canter, and then into a full gallop. Soft earth flew from horseshoes like a thousand tiny meteors across the sky.
“Well now, what have we hear,” grinned Taiko as he saw the young women peeling away from the group. He peered over one shoulder to check on Baby Blue’s unconscious form. “Well girl, you may be carrying some extra weight, but lets see if we can’t catch the others before they get too far away.” With a grunt and a kick Taiko sent Buttercup in pursuit of the other horse. B.B. bounced along across the back, but for the moment remained splayed over the horse’s rump.

Seeing his charge galloping away Shadow quickened his pace to follow, long steady strides to take him to a slow run. Left behind, Fenix and Jormangander looked at each other. With shrugs they maintained their steady march.
“If they wish to exhaust themselves and their horses they may,” Fenix sighed mostly to himself. “This trip won’t be short no matter how quickly we travel, and I’d prefer to arrive able to fight if I must.”
A grunt from ahead of him showed that Jormangander had heard. Waiting for a true response proved to be unsuccessful, and so the two men marched further in silence, watching as the others grew more and more distant.

Giggling of unrestrained joy filled the air around Sophia and Lynn as the wind tore at their hair and clothes. Valkyrie’s mane batted against Lynn’s face, hooves thundered against the ground beneath them, and the two women joined the rhythms of their movements to the horse’s swift gait. Behind them rode Taiko, unable to close the gap. A soft nudge and word from Sophia sent Lynn to sawing around Valkyrie’s reins, the animal following with the ease of long practice and familiarity. Taiko’s had time to bellow a surprised shout before a cloak was flung over him from the two riding past. Laughter with the light of the setting sun filled the air as both women road past Shadow as well. Grabbing onto his hat to keep it from being pulled from his head Shadow jogged to catch up with Taiko. The large man was pulling the cloak from his face when Shadow jogged past.

“No way that we’ll let him get ahead of us,” grumbled Taiko as he crumpled the cloak in his hands.
Urging his horse forward, Taiko caught up to Shadow. Before his horse could charge past Lynn and Sophia pulled up alongside him. With a wink Sophia held out one hand towards him, beckoning with her fingers. Throwing the cloak to her Taiko couldn’t help but smile.

For a long time they rode, or in Shadow’s case jogged, as the sun continued its slow decline. Conversations about nothing in particular sprouted, grew, and withered all the while. Lynn and Taiko talked about whatever came to mind in Yamato while Sophia and Shadow listened to the mixture of the voices and the wind.

The sun had been down for some time before resting arose in the conversation.
“I don’t understand how it is you’ve been able to keep up with us all day Shadow,” admitted Lynn quite impressed. “But even the horses are feeling tired by this point. Let’s find a nice place to tie the horses and enjoy a rest.”
“I could go on for a while yet,” Shadow added smugly. “You three can rest if you want to but I intend to get as close to the Deep Lake as I can tonight.”
“I don’t see anyone stopping you,” grumbled back Taiko. “If you think you can outpace the horses, then go right ahead. We’ll get there just fine at our own rate.”
Without another word Shadow continued forward while the others turned towards a small copse of trees. Hopping down and tying the horses to them, Lynn and Taiko realized that these ‘trees’ were really much more similar to oversized bushes. There were no thorns however, and the leaves were soft and green.
“That Shadow sure is a strange man,” Lynn muttered to the others as she brushed out Valkyrie’s coat.
“I know what you mean,” agreed Taiko as he tended to Buttercup. “Glad that bow using coward stayed in Farna.”
“What do you mean stayed in Farna? He was traveling with us until not long ago.”
“You must be imagining things. I’d remember that sneaky bastard if he was still with us.”
Looking to Sophia to agree with her, Lynn only saw confusion on her features as well. With a sigh she let the topic drop and finished tending her horse. Following that tents were assembled, a fire lit, and a simple meal of nuts, bread, and dried fruits was consumed. The three stretched out as they peered at the twinkling stars above them.
“You two get some rest,” groaned Taiko as he got to his feet. “I’ll take first watch.”
“What a gentleman,” Sophia said with a small smile. “I am not too proud to decline such a kind offer. You can wake Lynn and I both up when you are ready to sleep.”
The two women vanished into Lynn’s tent while Taiko polished his honed blade. Red and orange light gleamed from the folded steel, casting fitful reflections across the leaves around him. Staring up at the moon, Taiko allowed his thoughts to be filled with graceful red-haired women with eyes greener then any plant. A smile covered his face as he guarded his sleeping companions.

===========

Fenix trudged with the gait of the walking dead. Fatigue pulsed heavily through his veins, his muscles felt taught beneath his flesh. Mouth hanging open let the wind come rustling in and pouring out barely controlled. The chill night air plucked at the sweat covering his body like a lover’s kiss. Still he moved forward, following the relentless stride of Jormangander.

Peering into east, Jormangander shaded his eyes from the orange glare of dawn. “Doesn’t look like we’ll catch up to the others,” he admitted with a grunt. “The horses let them get too far ahead. We can stop here for some rest, and then continue on once the sun is properly risen.”

No other offer was required. Fenix collapsed instantly, falling face-first into the soft earth beneath his feet. The scent of grass, earth, and moisture filled his nose, and small puffs of dust rose from his mouth as he gave a great exhale. His body completely unmoving and eyes closed Fenix was asleep in the briefest of instants.
“I guess I’ll take the first watch then,” Jormangander grunted to himself as he surveyed their surroundings. “Dawn watch in this principality, odds are it will be quiet. Too bad.” He looked down at Fenix and shook his head. “He lasted longer then I expected, I doubt anyone else in our group would have made it this long. Sleep for now, we have much further to travel yet.”

===========

The sun sat as a gleaming crown in the sky as Lynn, Sophia, and Taiko continued to ride forward. Their pace was much more relaxed today, their horses slowly swaying beneath them like rolling waves on a calm lake. All three road quietly, enjoying the sunshine upon their faces and the rolling movement of their mounts. The air was calm, with only the faintest hint of wind to rustle the grasses and their hair.
Shading her eyes from the sun, Sophia gazed ahead of them. Her lips twitched into a smirk as she saw the figure before them. “Well now, look who we have here.”
“He must have gotten lonely going on ahead by himself,” Lynn smiled back as she also noted Shadow’s shrouded form standing on the plains waiting for them.
“He should have stayed by himself,” growled Taiko. “That guy gets on my nerves. He sneaks around us too much and I’m liable to cut something off so that he makes more noise.”
“Careful,” jabbed back Sophia with her wicked smile. “You say that where he can here you and he might take it as a challenge. I’m sure you would if he said something like that to you.”
“You may have a point.” Taiko grunted back. He shoved Baby Blue’s form a little further back, giving himself room to stretch.
As the three rode up to him, Shadow greeted them with a tip of his hat. “If we travel as long as we did yesterday we should be able to see the coast of the Deep Lake by nightfall.” There was a surety to Shadow’s voice. “We push ourselves and we might even be able to reach any village that we can find on the coast.”
“You sure you can keep up with these horses?” Taiko’s question only brought a smile to Shadow and Lynn’s lips.
“Oh, I believe he’ll be just fine on foot,” replied Lynn as she continued forward. “Once we reach a village they can hopefully point us towards this tower we’re looking for.”
“I should hope so,” Shadow agreed. “I can’t imagine there being many large towers built around the lake.”
“Perhaps it is popular for the wealthy to come to relax,” suggested Sophia. “A peaceful principality, away from the dreary and tedious expectations of daily life. Here there would be no one to harass you, or scheme your downfall. Just you, your home, and the fresh smell of clean water. Sounds like a wonderful idea to me.”
“Bah, this place would drive me crazy,” grumbled back Taiko. “Where’s the chance to test my body and blade? I need someone standing in my way, an obstacle to be overcome, so that I may ensure my skills do not dull and that I am a man worthy of respect. Languishing in peace is a rapid way to lose ones edge, just like a sword placed over the mantle for display.”
“But you use the blade too much and it will dull all the same. Sometimes I think that’s what has become of me, too many foes, too much danger, and now my edges have been worn down.” Sophia gave a heavy sigh, and her grey eyes clouded slightly as she stared at the back of Lynn’s dress.
“Well now, aren’t the two of you quite philosophical today,” Lynn grinned, although her face fell slightly as Valkyrie turned to notice the look on Sophia’s face. “Personally, a place to settle peaceful doesn’t mean much to me unless there are people you love there to spend time with.”
“That is well put Lynn,” Taiko nodded back. When she turned to face him, the quirk to her lips caused his complexion to redden as he rapidly became interested in a small group of birds flying overhead. A rapid swig from one of his bottles of alcohol was used to try and drown out his embarrassment.

The group continued forward through the day, words coming fewer and far between. A few glances back and forth from Taiko towards Lynn resulted in further colour rising into his face, and more alcohol passing his lips. Shadow could only shake his head and continued jogging beside the horses. Sitting behind Lynn, Sophia happily whistled as birds continued to fly overhead. The birds whistled and sang back, filling the air with happy and light song.

Throughout the day they maintained their relaxed pace, the sun falling over them to begin its slow descent behind the horizon. In the distance greeted them with the glimmer of the falling sunlight upon a great surface of water. Before that glittering surface were the shadowed frames of small buildings.

“There’s the lake,” Shadow pointed out as he looked back at the others. “If we keep going we can make it in only a few hours.”
“We’ve traveled far enough today,” responded Taiko. “The lake can wait until tomorrow. There are still two more of us that need to catch up. Without horses they could take a good long while. Taking a rest will let us be more prepared, and we still have plenty of time before the festival begins.”
“I must agree with Taiko,” Lynn added. “It has been a long day of riding. We can always go further, but why push ourselves when it isn’t necessary. Rest sounds very tempting.”

Hopping from horses and organizing camp came easily as they prepared for it. Tents and fire were raised to provide warmth for man and beast alike. With the stars rising above their heads and gleaming off the lake in the distance gave a charming ambiance to their evening meal. The soft sounds of wind through the grasses and trees allowed for the relaxation beneath the cloudless sky.
“Well, since your going to be following us around whether we want you to or not,” Taiko rumbled over to Shadow, “Then the least you can do is take watch. Since you felt that you can keep going you shouldn’t need sleep for a while at least.”
“Fine, I’ll wake you when it is time for me to sleep,” replied Shadow as he began oiling his bow and its string. “Sleep well you three.”
While the others turned in for the night Shadow stared into the glimmering flames before him. Leaning back he surveyed the space around them, the great plain spread out darkly all around, with only the smallest hints of movement in air and across the grasses. He settled in for a quiet night.

===========

Reflected in Jormangander’s cold blue eyes was the gleaming orange and red of a large flame. Judging from his ability to see it, and the size of flame from where he was suggested that the fire was several miles away.
“Well, there’s either another group wandering boldly across the plains,” mused Jormangander as he stopped marching. “Or we’re catching up to our old comrades.”
“Good to hear,” gasped Fenix as he barely remained on his feet. “I assume we’re going to keep marching until we get to where they are?”
Jormangander considered for a moment, but then shook his head. “No, we’ll stop for the night. They aren’t worth getting you killed over. Might give them the idea that we actually need their company. Can’t make them have inflated opinions of themselves. You sleep, and I’ll take first watch.”
“Thanks,” replied Fenix as he collapsed to the ground, curled up, and began to sleep. The dark air around the two of them made for a calm night. Jormangander sighed as he waited for another uneventful watch.

===========

From horseback the small cluster of buildings that assembled the fishing village seemed insignificant. A few scattered homes assembled of wood and thatch, simple fences to contain a few goats and a single cow. Chickens scrabbled across the dirt and grass between homes. Soft white sand brushed lightly towards the nearest home, waves lapping at the coast of the lake. Atop the water floated a trio of small fishing vessels, two little bigger then the lifeboats of galleys, while the largest had a single sail to help guide its low hull. All three boats were crowded with the forms of fishermen busy at work. Nets hung from all sides, those being pulled in laden with fish.

“What a quiet place,” grumbled Taiko as he looked around at the smattering of people still ashore. “I hate it already. Why do we always go to peaceful places? Let’s find out which way the tower is so that we can get out of here.”
“Fine, but let me handle this,” Sophia said shaking her head as she hopped down from Valkyrie’s saddle. “I somehow don’t expect them to be very helpful if you go over to them insulting their way of life. Allow me to try a more subtle approach.” Walking towards an elderly woman pulling clothes from a line Sophia greeted her with a bright smile. “Excuse me, but my friends and I were hoping you could answer some questions.”
The old woman’s dull eyes had their colour faded from long years, and spots covered her skin. Her voice was reed thin as she replied. “Well then young miss, what do your friends and you need?” She smiled, showing a mouth lacking teeth.
“Yes. We’ve heard that there is a tower that is quite incredible to see somewhere around the Deep Lake. I’m afraid we aren’t from around here, and so were hoping you might provide us directions.”
Looking Sophia up and down, and then turning her gaze to the others hovering just beyond the buildings, the old woman’s smile crept back behind wrinkled lips. “You don’t need to tell me that your friends aren’t from around here deary. Those men look like quite the hardened folks, especially the big one over there. Do they fight as ruggedly as they look?”
“They are very capable guards. My other friend and I are lucky to have them with us. Now, about the tower…” Frustration had begun to seep into Sophia’s voice.
If the older woman noted the frustration, she showed no sign of it. “A yes, a tower you say. And quite nice to look at. You and your friends don’t mean to rob the poor owner now do you. That wouldn’t be very nice at all you know.”
“Do not worry, we are not criminals. The owner of the tower simply owes us a debt that is quite overdue. We are going to ensure that he pays what is owed.”
“Foolish, foolish man,” tut tutted the elderly woman as she shook her head, a few wispy strands of hair falling across her face. She brushed them back with a spotted hand. “Some people never learn to be careful with their coin and not spend more then they have. This is why I prefer the simple life that we have out here. All you truly need is the people you care about around you, some animals to tend to and get milk, cheese, and eggs from. Being on a lake to get fish and fresh water grants even more joy. Some people are never happy and waste their time trying to get more coin. So very sad.”
“The tower. Which way is the tower.” Sophia’s fingers twitched.
“Oh yes, the tower, of course. I’m afraid I have no idea where it is. I don’t leave our little peace of Heaven you see, I have no need to. But it has been very nice talking to you deary.”

Stalking back to the group, Sophia’s features were dark, and her lip twitched up at the edges.
“Looked like you were having a good long conversation,” commented Shadow as she arrived. “Was the old woman able to give you good directions? Will we be able to reach the tower before the festival as The Blacksmith hoped.”
“It was a long conversation I’ll give you,” muttered Sophia as she moved her fingers rhythmically up and down, index finger to pinky and back again. “Unfortunately, the old woman was completely unhelpful. She has no idea where the tower is, or if there even is a tower around her. From the way she was talking she has never even left this tiny little settlement.”
“If she couldn’t help us, why did you talk to her so much.” Taiko sounded more confused then angry.
“Because she wouldn’t stop wandering off topic! She would completely ignore the tower in order to talk about things that she cared about more. It was infuriating. You had better join me as we continue to ask around though, since even the old woman thought we looked like a group of bandits off to pillage whatever we could find.”
“Bandits, us?” Huffing in contempt Taiko shook his head. “How could we possibly be bandits? Look at how well armed we are. She should of mistaken us for an elite group of mercenaries, or deserting Imperial soldiers. Bandits, the thought disgusts me.”
“Yet no offence taken from the pillaging comment,” muttered Shadow. “We can help you ask around then, if only to put these people’s minds at ease that we aren’t here to slaughter and make off with their livestock.”
“Good,” Sophia replied with an exasperated sigh. “If you left me alone to deal with another of these rambling quaint people I’d be likely to bury one of my daggers in them just to get them to stop squawking about how peaceful and happy they are here.”
“How about you let me do the talking then,” asked Lynn as she patted Sophia on the shoulder. “Seeing as my family traveled between small villages and hamlets like this all the time when I was younger, I might be more accommodating to their way of life.”
Sophia merely nodded, and the group made their way down to the beach. More then a few eyes lingered on the unconscious man thrown across the back of Buttercup, but a disarming smile from Lynn would draw a smile and wave in return.

Asking around with the other individuals still ashore led to little more being uncovered about the party’s destination. They asked as they could, men and women tending to the homes and livestock, an elderly man who relaxed on the beach whittling down a piece of wood, even the children running this way and that in a hectic game of some sort. All gave similar responses to the first old woman that Sophia had spoken to. None knew where this supposed tower was. A few of them had heard rumours of such a structure, but they would then chuckle and inform the adventurers that rumours about the Deep Lake were more plentiful then copper crowns. No one could agree on which way this tower could be either.

With the sun high in the sky Lynn gave a deep sigh. Valkyrie’s eyes focused on the largest of the fishing vessels in the lake, which was coming closer to shore to drop off its catch thus far. A light touch of the reigns set Valkyrie moving forward, with the others following closely behind.

Several sacks of fish were being thrown down to those waiting in the water before Lynn reached the edge of the water. Men and women carried these wriggling bags off into the town, where they set about the task of chopping off heads and filleting the rest. Slices both thick and thin were then transported off to the smallest shack, and hung on racks inside while wood was piled. With a lick of spark and flame the wood burned, the door sealed, and smoke began to drift up through the smokehouse’s roof.

“Excuse me sir,” Lynn called over to a well-muscled man tending to the nets aboard the ship. “I was hoping you might be able to help answer some questions I have.”
“Well miss, I’ll happily do my best.” Giving a good solid tug to an off-coloured portion of the nets weave, the large man smiled and set it across his legs. “Don’t know too much beyond fishing I’m afraid, but we’ll see what I can do for you all.”
“Thank you kindly. I was wondering if we were to try and walk around the edge of the Deep Lake how long would it take us?”
The man’s brow furrowed in concentration, and he rubbed at his chin absentmindedly with one hand. “No that is quite the trip you be planning. Haven’t traveled too far around it myself, just up and down this stretch for me fishing, and sometimes down to talk to the nearest groups on the lake. Been to Farna a couple of times though. I would think you’d need several weeks at least, maybe even a whole month if you wanted to walk right up close around the coast.”
“That is time we do not have I am afraid,” sighed Lynn. She could hear the others sigh behind her as well. “Would we perhaps be able to rent your boat? We could pay you fairly well if you could take us around that way. How long might it take then?”
“I’m afraid that is a trip a little too much for this boat.” There was sympathy in the man’s eyes. “She may be the biggest we have here, but she’s still only meant for the shallows and staying right near here for the fishing. Not built for many more people other then us fishermen. As for how long it would take, I’m afraid I just don’t know. Not many around here want to risk being so far from their homes and family for such a time.”
“I understand,” replied Lynn, voice heavy with disappointment. “I don’t suppose either of those other two boats would be willing to make the trip?”
“Those two really aren’t made for it at all. Good for fishing, not traveling. Sorry I couldn’t have better new for you miss. I hope you and your friends can get to where you want to go in time for whatever it is you’re doing.”

The group of adventurers made their back up from the beach shaking their heads as they went.
“Well, that was completely useless,” rumbled Taiko from his saddle. “How is it that we’re even going to decide which way we walk down the coast?”
“I expect that these decisions will be made quite quickly,” replied Shadow as he gestured over towards the edge of town. Two figures were making their way forward on foot. “It seems that Jormangander and Fenix have caught up with us.”
“Shit, they weren’t even a full day behind us, and they didn’t have horses.”
“True, but I kept up with you all on foot,” Shadow reminded the large man.
Several moments passed as they waited for Jormangander and Fenix to catch up to them. “So, learn anything,” grinned Jormangander as he arrived.
“Yeah, don’t ask peasants for help,” Taiko replied darkly.
“So they haven’t seen the tower?”
“Nope,” came Sophia’s simple and direct response.
“Well then, which way do we go?”
Looking around for a moment Lynn swiveled Valkyrie to stare down both sides of the beach, first one way, then the other. With a fierce nod she looked over to Jormangander. “We go left.”
“Sounds good.” Jormangander rolled his shoulders and turned left from facing the lake. “Let’s get a move on then.”
“We’re not actually just going to arbitrarily choose a direction based on a gut feeling are we?” Horror filled Shadow’s voice and darted across his plain features. “If we make the wrong decision it could take us a month to find this tower. We have less then a week!”
“Decision has already been made,” replied Jormangander without any care or worry. “If you have a better reason to go any direction other then the one I’m going, say it now or else keep up.”
With that Jormangander set off along the coast of the Deep Lake. Sophia hopped back into the saddle behind Lynn as they began to head off. Glaring at the others as their steps and horses carried them away, Shadow could only sigh. “If they chose wrong The Blacksmith will flay all of us.” Adjusting his hat he ran to catch up to the rest of them, and then returned to his easy walking pace.

They traveled once more until the sun set, the only distractions around them the lapping of waves, jumping of fish, and cries of coastal birds. Seeing fish leaping from the surface of the water to glitter in the sun made Shadow shudder slightly. None of the fish were as big as the one that he had battled on their way to Farna. Bow was left slung across Shadow’s back, he would let these fish live for now.

Night was just as peaceful. Dragonflies and fireflies flitted across the surface of the water, adding fitful lights and whizzing movement to the still night air. Every so often a splash would ripple through the night, and more often then not another small light would vanish from above the waters. Warm by their fire, the show helped to break the monotony of these uneventful night watches.

On the next day of travel the sun had already begun its lazy decline before Shadow spotted buildings before them around the lake edge.
“Looks like we’ve found another cluster of fishermen,” Shadow reported to the others.
“Maybe these people will be a little bit more helpful,” mused Sophia hopefully. “I do enjoy all or your company, but a quiet month wandering the edge of this lake does not entice me as how I should be spending my time.”
“The sooner we find this Saluin the sooner we may make him pay for his crimes, and the sooner we may return for the festival.” Fenix nodded solemnly as he spoke. “I for one have never attended a festival such as this.”
“They’re just events for these simple country folk to change the monotony of their boring lives,” Jormangander said with a shrug. “If we’re lucky they might have some fighting contests, or at least weapon demonstrations.”
“Given what we’ve seen here in Helenia, that doesn’t seem too likely,” grumbled back Taiko. “Just let me race my horse and I will show these people how it is done.”
“If you’re horse doesn’t collapse under you,” Shadow whispered to himself.
“Did you say something?”
“Not a thing. Do you want to do the talking here again Lynn?”
“I can.” Lynn thought for a moment before turning to face Jormangander. “And can no one threaten these people if they don’t know anything. It won’t make them suddenly remember where a tower they’ve never visited is.”
“These people aren’t worth threatening,” Jormangander responded dismissively. “Give me someone with backbone and I’ll get the truth out of them. These spineless fishmongers wouldn’t even be a challenge.”

Once again their groups entrance drew more then a few strange looks from the locals, but smiles tended to accompany the looks. Several waved, and an old woman walked over carrying several grilled and salted slices of fish.
“Care for a bit of a pick me up after being on the road my dears,” creaked the old woman as she grinned a toothless smile. “Made these up just today dears, fresh from the water they are.”
“Why thank you.” Lynn gratefully thanked her as she and the rest happily took the food and set to chewing. “There are some other things that we were wondering about also actually. You wouldn’t happen to know about a tower somewhere around the edge of this lake would you? It would be quite spectacular from what I’ve heard. My friends and I have some business with the owner of the tower you see.”
A sad look crossed the old woman’s face, and her smile faltered. “Ah, I see. You’re looking for the tower are you? Then you’ll be wanting to speak with the Gavalos’ then. Their home is the one just over there. You’ll need to knock, they haven’t been much for leaving home these past weeks.”
“May I ask why?”
“Not my place to say. If you really want to know, then you’ll have to ask them yourselves. I can merely say that they have been struck with ill fortune recently.” With a sad smile the old woman took her tray and left, heading down towards the waterfront.
Lynn turned to face her companions. “Sounds like we have a lead at least.”
“Then lets go there and ask these people,” Jormangander stated before marching towards their home.
“Maybe you should let one of us talk to them Jormangander,” Sophia suggested from behind Lynn. “If they’re already having cruel fates twisting them, the last thing they need is for you to start swinging those hammers of yours inside their house.”
“Bah, if they make me swing a hammer, then it’s their own damn faults.”

Galloping before Jormangander to keep him from reaching the home in question first, Lynn and Sophia both dismounted from Valkyrie’s back. As the others caught up to them, Jormangander in the lead, Lynn knocked on the door. There was a moment where the knock seemed to echo in the room beyond, but no response was forthcoming. Lynn knocked once more.
“We don’t need anything right now, thank you,” came a woman’s voice from inside the small home, sadness heavy upon it.
“We hear that you have had something bad has happened to you,” Lynn softly spoke to the closed door. “My friends and I may be able to assist you.”
There was another moment of hesitation before a man’s voice called out. “Come in then.”

Testing the door, Lynn found it to be unlocked. She opened it and their group stepped inside. The small home was a single large room. A central table and fire pit dominated much of it, with a pair of beds cluttering one wall beneath a shuttered window. The entire home smelled of fresh water and fish, with a great many dried fish hanging above the faintly smoldering fire. Pots and cutlery hung beside the fish, along with a few nets and fishing poles. Sitting around the table was a couple that looked to be in their mid-thirties, brown of hair and eyes. While they were in good shape from work around the coast their entire bodies were hunched over with grief.

“So,” Lynn began tentatively. “Would you be willing to tell us what has happened? An older woman outside said that you two might know where we can find a large tower around the lake.”
“Aye, we know where it is,” growled the man as he looked down at his hands. “Nothing but sadness and pain if you ask me about that place.”
“Is it near here?” Sophia asked cautiously.
“Only a few hours if you travel quickly. Found in a little inlet that hides it from prying eyes. Our son and one of his friends ran across it just over a month back. He was so proud, saying that the two of them would have grand adventures exploring the inside of it. My wife and I told him to leave it well enough alone, that the owner might not like to have children running around. There are plenty of other places that the two of them could play.”
“He didn’t listen I’m guessing,” Taiko commented with a knowing nod.
“He did for a time.” The woman added, hands kneading away at the front of her dress. “Then, about three weeks ago he didn’t come home once the sun set, and his friend had vanished too. All of us went out searching, but we couldn’t find any trace of them, and there was no response when my husband went over to the tower. We’d give anything to have our little Sam back.”
“He’s been gone for three weeks,” Fenix muttered to himself. “That doesn’t sound particularly promising.” Taiko put one massive hand atop Fenix’s shoulder, and squeezed. His fingers bit lightly into Fenix’s flesh.
“We know that,” agreed Sam’s father. “But we can’t give up hope yet. We need to know what happened, and if he’s all right he needs to know that he can come back home. We’re only worried about him, we aren’t angry. If you’re group plans on heading to the tower, could you please try to find Sam. Would you be able to find him and bring him back to us, we would give you anything that we possess. All you would have to do is name it.”
“We’d just have to bring him back in whatever condition we want?” The words left Fenix’s lips before Taiko’s fingers dug sharply into his shoulder. A bruise arose beneath each of Taiko’s clawing digits, but Fenix didn’t even flinch from the pain.
“We will bring both of them back with no expectation of reward,” Lynn quickly added. “It’s the right thing to do. All of us will set off immediately. Thank you both for your help.”

Leaving the small home of the Gavalos’, Taiko rounded on Fenix as he mounted Buttercup again. “What the hell was that back there,” he roared over to the red haired man. “What kind of answers were you giving to that family.”
“It was only my usual way of dealing with people,” Fenix responded softly. “There shouldn’t have been any need for alarm or crushing of my flesh.”
“You made it sound like we were going to murder their children and bring back the corpses.”
“And I’m sure that you’ve never done such a thing before. You did say you were a mercenary before this.”
There was only silence as a response from Taiko to that. Without another word the group made their way from the small settlement, towards the proposed inlet that was told to contain the tower for which they searched.

Hours continued to pass and the sun descended as they made their way around the lake. They kept right up against the lapping waves, water running over horses hooves and men’s boots. Prints left in the sand trailed behind them, slowly fading away from the water. With the sun gleaming off the waves the group soon found that they began mounting over one of the rare hills surrounding the lake. As they reached the summit, a gleaming shape drew the eyes of all but Taiko.

Recessed between the hills, water lapping and curving around its back, was a great tower assembled from deep black stone. Liquid gold was the hue of the water near the tower’s base, and patterns of gold gleamed across the towers walls. Nearly fifty feet in height the great refined stone building rose high into the air. A pair of black steel doors gleamed at the bottom, shut to all the world like some indomitable force.

“Looks like we’ve finally found it then,” Jormangander nodded as he looked downwards. “Time to teach this Saluin a lesson in pain.”
“Give me a moment first,” asked Shadow. “If you refuse to disguise yourself, then at least let me go around the base in order to ensure there aren’t any traps laying in wait for us.”
“If you’ve finally given up on trying to make me disguise myself I guess I can give you until I get bored. Don’t keep me waiting.”
“I suppose that’s more then I should expect.”

Down the slope Shadow slipped, moving through the darkened paths between the hills like his namesake. Lashing back and forth he wound, barely making a sound or bending the grass beneath his bare feet. Beneath the tower he crept until the doors stood grand and tall before him. Eyes gazing back and forth to the front and all around, there were no guards within sight, nor any windows except for gleaming black leaden surfaces around the middle of the tower.
A small shape bobbing in the water nearby drew Shadow’s attention. Seeing no sign of guards still, he moved over towards the shape. Leaning over Shadow lifted a small, crude fishing rod from the mud. Thick twine was looped around the slender handle, the wood worn and grumbled from long use. At the end of the twine hung a slender bone hook, nearly fallen from the fraying rope. The tool was sized for a child. Holding onto it Shadow’s grip tightened until his knuckles turned white. Setting the rod back down, Shadow returned to his companions.

“There appear to be no guards, or any windows that I can properly see,” Shadow reported upon his return. “Large sealed doors, and a small fishing rod down in the tidal flats. The child we are looking for is probably somewhere within the tower. The trick now, is determining how to get in.”
“Well, we are dressed the part to sneak in.” Lynn suggested. “All we need do is walk over to the door and walk in.”
“Do you really think he would leave those massive doors open though?” Shaking her head Sophia simply eyed the tower. “They would at least be locked. I could try to pick them, if they are sealed like a normal door. Never had to deal with a wizard like this before. They might have some special way to seal his home.”
“Once we’re that close we don’t need to pick any locks,” Taiko laughed with a great heaving of his shoulders. “I’ll just tear them down if I must. We’ll send them crumbling down in a great announcement of our presence to strike fear into the coward’s heart.”
Fenix only shrugged.
“Well then,” continued Shadow. “Either one of you can deal with getting us in then. The trick is getting to the doors in the first place. The rest of you aren’t as stealthy as I am.”
“We can leave the horses and Baby Blue here,” Lynn suggested. “I’d hate for anything bad to happen to them. I’ll leave Brutus to guard them. I’ll need to borrow your senses again for a time Shadow.” She set about hobbling the horses, leaving them tied to a nearby stone. When Shadow nodded Lynn set her matrices to connect the two of them, releasing Valkyrie from their previous connection.
“Good, all we need to do now is get Jormangnader to disguise himself as well,” Shadow added.
“You still try to get me to hide who I am?” There was great displeasure in Jormangnader’s words and gaze. “I said I would give you until I was bored. That comment bores me.”

With a wordless battle cry Jormangander charged down the slope towards Saluin’s tower, hammer held high above him. Curses and shocked gasps rained from his companions, and they set off in pursuit. Jormangander’s great strides left his great boots to strike great furrows in the ground, grass flying behind him as the setting sun glinted from weapon and mail. As the group hurtled forward no flames rained down upon them, no hail of arrows nor bolts of lightning. The party’s charge brought them up the stairs and to the grand steel doors. No harm befell them as they stood before the great sealed portal.

“And you were worried,” Jormangander chuckled as he pushed against the door. The great steel doors stood firm and unmoving. “Well, I did the useful part of getting us here, now its time for one of you to open these doors for me. I have people to kill.”
“Modest as ever,” grumbled Sophia as she reached into her pack for her lockpicks.
A sound like rolling thunder filled the air as Taiko’s fist crashed into one of the doors. The sharp crack of shearing metal poured out from around the metal fist, yet the doors only shuddered and remained closed. “Your way is too slow.” There was a satisfied look on Taiko’s face as he shook out his hand. “Almost opened them in a single blow. Let’s see what my second strike can do.”
As Taiko wound up for his second swing, Jormangander let his eyes roll over the great metal doors, the massive steel handles, the lock beneath, and the hinges on the wall beside it. Moments before Taiko’s fist struck the door on his side, Jormangander calmly reached out and pulled open the other door. Gaping opening grew wider as the other door leapt open from the fierce blow it received, Taiko narrowly backing out of the way as it screamed through the air.
“Try pulling it open next time,” grunted Jormangander as he crossed the threshold into the tower.
“Well, if anyone didn’t know we were here before, they certainly do now,” Sophia sighed as she drew out her White Roses.
“Sometimes I long for the opportunity to use subtlety,” Lynn agreed with a mirrored sigh. “There are ways other then violence to solve these kinds of problems. I’ve spent so much time with these people I’m beginning to forget the other ways of solving problems.”
“I couldn’t agree with you more.” A third sigh from Shadow completed their choir of regret. With bow drawn he entered beside Fenix.

The small room beyond proved to demonstrate the immaculate craftsmanship that was used in the construction of this domain. Polished wooden floors gleamed beneath boots and feet, dustless and shining with lacquer. Dark stone walls were emblazoned with images of lush forests, swirling seas, and grand castles; stones of different colours blended in to form true pieces of art. Across from the entrance stood a dark wooden door, heavily ornate and of a more traditional size. To either side of the door stood wardrobes carved from the same wood as the floor and door.

Moving carefully the adventurers moved forward. Shadow’s eyes washed over the floor, looking for any signs of traps or deception. He saw none. Sword drawn Taiko moved over to the wardrobes, pulling open first one and then the other.
“Emply,” he reported to the others.
“You all did worry too much,” grunted Jormangander as he checked the handle of the door. It moved without resistance. Twisting the handle downwards Jormangander pushed the door open.

Beyond the door was a short hall, which then opened up into a larger chamber. As they entered, a great brass spiral staircase rose up into the ceiling and to the floors above. Like points of a compass other halls extended from the circular room, ending at more elaborately carved doors.
“This is far too easy,” muttered Sophia as she looked around. “No guards, no resistance. Even the doors inside are unlocked.”
“I don’t like it either.” Hand brushing the fletching of his arrows, Shadow continued to cast paranoid glances. “We must stay vigilant.”
“He may just have not expected anyone to blatantly break into his home,” Fenix suggested.
“Whatever the reasons are don’t matter,” Jormangander interrupted. “We’re in. Now lets find the bastard, and the other two, and kill them.”
“Should we move further up the tower, or should we explore this floor first?” While Lynn asked her question she stood with eyes closed, details being picked out by Shadow filling her mind.
“We should clear this floor first to make sure it’s empty,” responded Taiko. “If there is anyone or anything down here, we don’t want them escaping, or attacking us in the back.”
“Agreed.” Jormangander nodded as he set off towards the hall to the right of the entrance. “We’re going this way first.”
“Why do you get to choose for all of us,” rasped Shadow, disapproval heavy in his voice. “You don’t have the right to choose for all of us. We may wish to search in a different pattern.”
The ghost of a hesitation entered Jormangander’s stride, the desire to turn around to face the one that dared speak such. His fingers tightened along the handle of his hammer. But just as quickly as the shift came over him it vanished, and Jormangander pushed open the door to the room beyond. The rest of the group followed him, Shadow lagging slightly behind and glowering.

A large sweeping room greeted them beyond the door. A plush red carpet covered much of the wooden floor, up to a set of brass rails beyond which stood four large glass display cases. Hanging from the ceiling was a great wrought iron chandelier holding dozens of large candles. Far in the cornered recesses stood from their door were two great statues; one with the body of a well muscled man topped by the head of a fierce bull, the other the upper body of a beautiful woman, bare breasted with slender arms and features, atop a great mound of stone tentacles that seemed to writhe when viewed from the corner of the eye. Beside the statue of the woman, along the left wall, was another wooded door.

“Well now, what have we hear,” muttered Jormangander as he walked over to survey the contents of the cases. Behind him came Lynn, Sophia, and Fenix. “Looks like Saluin was a bit of a collector.” His eyes rested on a case filled with a dozen small gems, colours of the rainbow and more glittering in the candlelight. Beside it was a long thin case containing a strange weapon with a pair of long lance like tips with a grip in the middle. A crescent moon shaped guard covered the handle. The two long blades gleamed with the distinct colouration of white steel, and flakes of obsidian decorated guard and grip.
“Indeed, have you ever seen anything like this before?” Fenix stared intently at a jeweled skull within the third case. It appeared to be human, but the delicate skeletons of snakes seemed to have been fused to the top, or grown from it like hair. “I assume it would be a bad idea to try and take these?”
“Probably,” agreed Lynn as she stared at the last display case. “Although they do look quite valuable.” Her gaze was held by an elegant circlet, forged from spun silver and studded with moonstones. The piece was more elegant then anything she had ever seen, but Lynn worried that the circlet would crumble upon being touched.
“We won’t know for now,” Sophia added as she looked the items over. “We can always come back for them afterwards I suppose.”

Shadow stood in the doorway guarding the rear and watching the stairs. With the others perusing the display cases Taiko moved to the door. Gently he turned the handle and pushed the door open. While Taiko was doing that, Jormangander looked as the others moved away from the cases, and reached over with his left hand and flicked the case containing the jewels open.

Flames filled the air in a roaring rush. Both Shadow and Taiko were hurtled through the doors they stood in, Shadow rolling across the floor to extinguish his smoldering cloak. Ducking beside one of the statues saved Fenix from the blunt of the blast, but flames still licked across his arms and chest. Lynn, Sophia, and Jormangander were not so lucky. The force of the searing fire through Lynn from her feet before rolling over her, hungrily biting at flesh and cloth to leave her shaking on the floor. Burns washed over Sophia as well, hurling her through the air and into a wall. When the flames vanished as quick as they had come, Jormanangander was left standing beside the cases, left arm dislocated from its socket, flesh seared and scorched, and embers glowing angrily in his beard.

“What the fuck was that!” Pulling himself to his feet Taiko roared as he turned to face Jormangander, fury written clear over his face.
“Looks like some kind of magic on the chest,” Jormangander responded through gritted teeth. Grabbing his dislocated arm with his right hand he gave it a great tug and push. A terrible pop filled the air, as did the sound of teeth grinding, as Jormangander snapped his arm back into its socket.
“No fucking kidding it was some kind of magic attack! What I want to know is why you opened the case!”
“There were valuables inside. No one else seemed interested.”
“That’s because they were obviously trapped!” The venom in Sophia’s eyes and voice was plain to see as she cradled her left hand in her other arm. The glove had been entirely consumed, and only red and pink spotted flesh could be seen glistening. She ground herbs into some linen before wrapping it around her maimed hand. Gritting her teeth she flexed her burned and swaddled fingers before pulling a new glove over it.
“I saw no obvious traps,” Jormangander calmly replied, although his body was tensed. “If the rest of you truly knew that there was some kind of danger here it is your fault for not saying.”
“So it’s our fault that you nearly blew us all up,” snapped back Lynn as she pushed herself gingerly to her feet..”
“Yes.”
“That does it,” hissed Shadow sharply. “You arrogant bastard! You nearly get all of us killed and you have the gall to try and claim that it is somehow hour fault. Maybe if you had of given us a chance to disarm that trap this could have been avoided.”
“I did give you time.” The ice had crept back into Jormangander’s eyes. “All of us looked over the cases, there was no mention of traps. The rest of them started to walk away. If they were going to check to see if they were safe, they would have. And you were hiding in the doorway. Don’t talk to me like you even know what happened.”
“I was guarding the doorway to ensure that our prey would not escape like they did last time.”
“Now who’s making excuses? Someone was going to open the cases, I did. We’re all alive,. Get over it.” Without another word Jormangander scooped the gems into his pack and walked back towards the stairs.
“Just much more injured then we were before,” glowered Sophia as she stalked off after Jormangander.
“I hope there was only the one blast of flame,” Fenix commented as he opened the case containing the skull. Lynn and Shadow flinched, but no more fire consumed the air. “Looks like there was.” Fenix smiled down at the strange skull as he lifted it up, moved it around in his hands, and then stored it in his sack with his other meager belongings.
“You could have warned us before you did that,” Lynn muttered as she pulled the circlet from its container. The fine silver held true to its shape as she placed it upon her head. From Shadow’s gaze she could see herself in it, and the sight made her giggle despite her wounds. “Like a princess. Not quite fitting for right now however.” Into her pack the circlet slipped.
“He almost gets us all killed, and here we are looting what he left behind,” muttered Shadow as he pulled out the strange double lanced weapon. “Well, you aren’t a lance but I should be able to compensate. Taiko, do you have any idea what this weapon is?”
Taiko turned and looked it over for a moment. “That’s a sang kauw, although its much more elaborate then most It’s either very well made, or was designed as a display piece and will shatter after the first attack.”
“Only one way to find out I guess.” Holding his new weapon in his hands Shadow gave a few practice thrusts and parries. It felt good beneath his fingers.
Shaking his head at Shadow’s opponent-less fencing, Taiko turned back to the room he had opened. His shoulders slumped in disappointment.

Taiko’s gaze fell over a small room, filled with a pair of comfortable looking beds, and a wooden closet beside each. Both beds had the cotton sheets thrown aside in disarray. Running his hand over the stuffed mattress, a clear impression could be felt in down beneath, one large and the other smaller. Smiling to himself Taiko pulled open one of the closets. Empty. He moved to the other and threw open its door as well. Reaching in to pull out its contents let Taiko smile even more broadly.

Striding back out to the stairwell chamber Taiko presented his prize to his companions; “Look at what I found in the sleeping chamber.” He dangled a pair of purple suede riding boots from his hands. “Looks like we an safely say that at least Zelna is here, or else he left without his boots.”
“Then we did find the right place,” Shadow commented with a nod. “Then lets find him and kill him.”
“You can do the finding, but I’ll do the killing,” grunted back Jormangander as he headed straight across from the previous chamber. “Time to continue the search.”
“Don’t you think we should wait a little bit to recover?” Lynn’s voice was filled with longing, but also doubt. “After that explosion I don’t think we can handle much more.”
“You can’t handle anything,” responded Jormangander without turning around. “I on the other hand will crush whatever gets in our way.”
“Big words from the man that looks more injured then the rest of us,” snapped back Sophia.
“If I’m so hurt, then why am I the one willing to continue when the rest of you want to sit and wait for him to come and finish roasting us in person? Now get a move on.”
“We could just let him get himself killed,” grumbled Sophia as she glared daggers into the back of Jormangander’s head.
“No, we can use his help.” Taiko’s response was calm and serious. “Besides, I can’t sit back and rest unscathed while that walking roast walks forward. It would be pathetic.” Taiko set off after Jormangander. Shortly after him followed Fenix and Shadow.
“Why are all the men we travel with suicidal?” Lynn gave a deep sigh but refused to sit down.
“Probably for the same reason that we seem to be,” replied Sophia with a shake of her head. The two women sighed in unison as they followed to where Jormangander was opening yet another door. “If this one explodes also I might just kill him myself.”

Yet another door opened beneath Jormangnader’s mailed fist. Pushing it open revealed a grand sweeping chamber, stretching far to both the left and the right. Rising nearly fifteen feet in the air was the grand ceiling, and from the great peaking centre a great crystal chandelier that glimmered with a multihued light. Illuminated by the grand chandelier were massive wooden shelves, lining the walls and dominating the spaces in between leaving only narrow paths to travel through. Countless books crowded the grand shelves, covers of leather and felt, with all colours both bright and others faded. Tables of smooth lacquer filled the smallest of spaces that were available between shelves, with a single fine chair beside each table.
To either side of the door stood great suits of steel armour, well crafted and heavily built. Helms with grated steel face guards rested upon broad shoulders and wide armour. There didn’t appear to be any wire or stand upon which the armour was assembled, yet the pair stood straight and tall. Like mirror images they held battle axes within one gauntlet, and large shields in the other.

As Shadow gazed into the room over Jormangander’s shoulder he stared up at the chandelier and hissed his breath through his teeth. “I request that we leave this room alone for now. There is a strange glow about that chandelier that I do not trust. There may be some form of trap here.”
Looking over at the two metal suits flanking the door, and then up to the grand chandelier as well, Jormangander nodded as well. “Fine, you can have the benefit of the doubt on this one. We’ll finish off the master first, and then take his belongings afterwards.
“You aren’t kidding, are you,” grunted Taiko. “We’re really going to ignore this room just because he tells us to.”
“Have you ever found a trap that you didn’t disarm with your face?” With a grin Sophia turned up to face the final door, heading towards it with Lynn shortly behind.
With a grunt Jormangander turned to head to the final door on the floor. Fenix and Shadow went as well, until only Taiko was left staring into the library, his eyes fixated on the countless gems of the chandelier. Jaw bunching and fingers clenching he joined the others, his feet stomping hard upon the wooden floor.

Finally having made it to a door before her tactless companions Sophia opened the final door with her right hand. Beyond it was a massive table of rich rosewood, surrounded by ten chairs with black satin cushions. A pair of large stone statues carved into the forms of elderly wizards with flowing beards dominated corners, while two flowing tapestries flanked a stone door to their right. Upon them were great beasts with a grand crimson dragon upon one and a deep blue bird behind upon a cloudy sky.

“After we’ve dealt with Saluin we really need to sell off all the furniture in this place,” Sophia mused as she ran her gloved hands over one of the cushioned chairs. “These are absolutely exquisite. All of us could make a great fortune. From the things that we have seen here, we could buy nearly anything I’d imagine.”
“You really think its worth that much?” Gazing over the room and the furniture with naked lust in his eyes. “All the weapons and armour that we could find for us. There are many weapons that I need to find for myself. Perhaps I could find myself a true blade with history, or else I’ll need to ensure that my personal blade becomes a true legend in itself.”
“Turn your own blade into a legend,” grumbled Jormangander as he moved over to the stone door. “Just don’t start selling anything off until we’ve dealt with Saluin. If I kill him, then you’ll be trying to sell off my furniture.”
“Not going to happen,” Taiko responded. “You say I need to make my blade a legend, then why not strike down this cursed mage.”
“And here begins the arguments that will lead to pointless and illusions of grandeur,” muttered Lynn.
“Perhaps we can move forward and deal with the selling of this place once we have all survived,” Fenix suggested. “If we are distracted by the though of money, the next blast of flame may claim more then flesh.”
“A sound argument,” agreed Shadow.
“True enough.” With a nod Jormangander turned back to the door and pushed it open.
“Hmm, so death and flame seem to guide him forward,” Sophia grinned as she continued forward. “I must admit that that was the quickest solution to one of those arguments that we’ve had with him for a good long time.”
“A very pleasant surprise.” Lynn agreed. “Well, lets see what else there is behind these mystery door.”
“Hopefully no secret exits,” growled Shadow. “If that lot gets away from us again, I think we might find our heads on pikes upon returning to Farna.”
“Then we can’t let them get away this time,” Sophia agreed as she looked down on one of her White Roses. “We will spill their blood so that the wood may drink it in.”
“Unless we find them where there is stone,” smirked Lynn as she walked into the next room.

With the scent of salt, flame, and dried meats and fruits filling the air made Lynn giggle and Sophia give a great satisfied sigh. Taiko licked his lips hungrily as his eyes took in the kitchen that they had found, and all the foods bound within. The tiled floors provided clean and nearly dustless surfaces. From racks upon the ceiling hung sides of salted pork and beef, utensils and pans of silver. An oven of hot stones gave off waves of heat that passed before the cupboards beside it, dried foods nearly falling from the packed shelves. Atop a stone preparation table were blades and cleavers each composed of pure silver. Dominating another corner were barrels upon barrels, labels of different languages covering the front of them.
“Thank the Kami, for they are kind,” prayed Taiko as he walked over to the barrels. Drinks from the far reaches of the Empire when it was one piled one atop another; ales from Hendell, wines from Gabriel and Abel, beers from Helenia, and stouts and sakes from across Varja. Reaching over the great man pushed a Yamato labeled stout onto its side and tapped it with a spout atop the other barrels. Brining out a tin cup from his pack he poured himself a heaping and foaming glass. As the stout passed his lips a great smile crossed his lips. “Ah, but this is how we should be able to enjoy our time before we slaughter our enemies. This man has fine taste in drink I must admit. It will be a pleasure to kill him and take the rest for ourselves.” Draining his first cup Taiko eagerly poured himself a second.
“There shall be no shortage of food for our return either.” Fenix set about pulling smoked legs of beef and pork from the racks above him. Moving over to the cupboards he added dried apples and peaches, shriveled carrots and a jar of pickled beets. “Even wizards must eat it seems.”
“Does anyone else find it strange that this place is so clean?” Looking around the room Shadow could feel the hairs on the back of his neck rise up. “We haven’t seen a single person alive or dead inside this entire place. Who keeps it so clean? Can a wizard have so much power that he would waste some merely to maintain the cleanliness of his home?”
“Perhaps if he was vain enough, or despised mess,” suggested Lynn. “Baby Blue might be able to tell us more, if he wasn’t still unconscious from when he helped me.”
“He’ll be fine I’m sure,” Sophia muttered with a slight cough. She was going over the various blades along the preparation table. “These are some fine blades, a pitty they are only suitable for cooking.” She moved over to search through the spices upon the shelves.
“You lack imagination.” Beside her Jormangander lifted a great silver kitchen knife. The sharp edge gleamed in the heat and glow from the oven. Grinning he slipped it into his right boot. Next he brought a great gleaming silver cleaver. Across its blade was inscribed the skull of a bull. Jormangander looked down at his left boot for a moment, and then shook his head and placed it within his pack.
“Come now, you know you really want to use that cleaver as your boot knife.” A small smile covered Fenix’s normally serious face.
“That would be ridiculous. Grab what we need, and then lets get a move on.”
More food was pillaged and hidden away in packs and belts, another three glasses of stout emptied by Taiko, and only Jormangander claimed silver cutlery for now. Shaking her head Sophia left all of the spices behind, none fit for her desired needs. With a final look over the still well stocked kitchen the group departed, moving back towards the great brass stairwell.

“Well then, upward and forward,” Taiko suggested as he eyed the grand circular stair.
“Onwards and forwards,” Jormangander corrected with all seriousness before taking the lead. With a shake of his head Taiko followed. Soon the rest fell into their places behind, with Fenix and Shadow sharing rear guard.

The stairs rang out loudly beneath their passing, complaining against every step by those bearing armour, and groaning at the passage of those that did not. Around they went until the stone above their head passed beneath their feet and a plain chamber of carved black stone greeted them. Fitful light rose from candles above the stair, a small attempt to hide the lack of detail and ornamentation to the room. A plain door of wood reinforced with iron barred their passage. Giving the door a quick glance Taiko reached for the handle, and then sent his boot crashing into the base of it while his fingers still remained inches away. With a great crash wood splintered as the lock was torn free and the door was sent banging open.

“Looks like we’re down with stealth and tact again,” Sophia hissed over to Lynn. “What do you think his train of thought is; ‘No one tried to kill us on the floor below, so we must not have made enough noise for them.’ I’m getting a headache from this, and its not from the sounds of splintering wood.”
“Perhaps he’s just trying to catch them by surprise,” suggested Lynn. “Keep changing the tactics so that they can’t expect what to do and set a trap for us.”
“And maybe you’re just trying to find sense to his madness.”
Shadow could only grit his teeth as he watched his charge’s behaviour and listened to the ladies’ conversation. Tightening his grip on his new weapon he took a deep sigh. Beside him Fenix cracked his knuckles as Jormangnader and Taiko walked past the splintered door.

An intact door much the same as the one that now hung limply from damaged hinges stood across a wide room from them. Tapestries hung from the side walls, and it was these heavily ornate pieces of fabric that drew the attention and focus. To their left hung heavy white silk, embroidered upon it images of clouds, angels, golden sunrays and drifting cherubs. Across from it red wool dominated the wall, fire and brimstone clear upon its face to provide a backdrop to the demonic beings and tortured humans that dominated the foreground. Both sets of fabric shifted and rippled slightly despite the stillness of the air.

“I don’t like this,” muttered Shadow as he pulled his bow from his shoulder. An arrow was notched and the string taught in the blink of an eye. “I smell a trap. Everyone be on your guard.”
“You’re not the only one to suspect something,” agreed Jormangnader as he tighted his grip on his held hammer. Eyeing the flames of the one tapestry caused Jormangander’s lips to curl down in discuss. He and Fenix moved over towards the white tapestry with its heavenly images.
With her daggers drawn Sophia moved beside Shadow to the hellish wall hanging. A glance over their shoulder’s to the others showed that everyone was in position, and the hangings were pulled away from the wall. Cold wall greeted them behind as the heavy fabric remained solidly embedded further up.
“Now I really don’t like this,” Sophia grimaced as the tapestries were released. Along one corner she moved the edge of a White Rose. Red and orange thread peeled and parted beneath it without resistance.
“Now that you’ve all worried for nothing,” grumbled Taiko as he began walking over to the door. “Can we stop wasting time and move forwards? Saluin won’t wait forever.”

Taiko was halfway across the room, directly between the tapestries, before the bitter cry of steel scraping through stone filled the air. Darkened iron bars burst through stone all around him, the tips driving into the ceiling ten feet above in a cracking of stone and showering of fine dust. Turning all around him all Taiko could see were the bars that encircled him, trapping him within a cage of steel.
“I won’t here any jokes about this,” Taiko muttered red-faced as he began trying to bend and shift the solid bars. Beneath is muscled hands they quivered and shook, but remained strong. “If some of you would help with these bars we can get moving once more.”
Walking over to assist him Fenix and Jormangander began to heave and push upon the bars as well. With the three strong men working together the iron complained loudly but slowly began to shift in another shower of dust.
“You should really have seen this coming,” Fenix suggested as the three began forcing a second bar away from their first mangled piece. “Never walk straight down the middle, it is what the enemy expects.”
“Nothing happened when the rest of you entered.” Taiko’s response was gruff as his body heaved against the bar. “Besides, this only affects me. I don’t unleash flame to roast my comrades.”
“Since it only affects you then you don’t need my help to get the rest of the way out then,” grunted Jormangander as he released the bar. Eyeing the twisted cage Jormangnader walked away without another word while Fenix and Taiko struggled to force the bar further.
“Come now, you can’t actually leave me for a harmless comment like that,” Taiko’s face was red and his voice was tight, but the bar would not move with only two working on it.
“This may be large enough for you to get through,” suggested Fenix as he stepped back wiping sweat from his brow. “You should merely have to remove your armour and clothing to escape.”
“Remove my armour!” The very notion seemed to repulse Taiko.
“Yes, it is not so hard. You do not sleep in it after all, do you?”
“I would if I could.” His voice had gone very faint, and a flush had crept even further up Taiko’s face.
“Women don’t enjoy a man to be in armour while abed,” chided Sophia, but her wicked little smile pulled at the edges of her lips. “Besides, if it makes you feel better I promise not to stare at you while you’re naked. Well, I won’t stare at you too much at least.”
“Not helping, but there’s no way around it is there.” With a deep sigh and grunt Taiko dropped his pack from his shoulders and pushed it between the bars. Growing ever redder he then began to set about undoing the straps on his armour. As each piece came off he added it to the pile beyond his cage.

With piece after piece of steel falling from Taiko’s frame, Shadow couldn’t help but notice the grin crossing Lynn’s face. It only seemed to broaden with every bit of Taiko’s muscle that was kissed by the still air. After a moment of though Shadow closed his eyes.
“This is not fair at all,” he heard Lynn mutter to himself. Allowing himself a small grin of his own Shadow kept his eyes closed as the sounds of clattering metal and leather continued to fill his ears.

Finally freeing himself from his armour, Taiko stood naked within the cage except for his nodachi. His complexion had turned to the fiery red of the one tapestry. When Sophia whistled sharply over at him and through him a wink the large man’s complexion grew even less natural. Ignoring the others around him Taiko wedged his body into the forced gap between bars. For a while the iron resisted the presence of his girth, digging harshly into the flesh of his stomach, rasping against the shoulder he forced through. With a loud grunt and heavy twist Taiko forced himself through the small gap. Grabbing up portions of his armour he began to re-equip himself.
“That wasn’t as bad as you were expecting I imagine,” Fenix calmly commented as the larger man set to donning his armour.
“It certainly wasn’t pleasant. I’m sure you wouldn’t understand however, seeing as you are always half-naked anyway.” Taiko’s response was filled with the bitterness of one on the defensive.
“I have no problem with my body, therefore I do not feel the need to hide it beneath clothes. Armour has never been a main focus of mine either, except for my pants and arms.” Fenix moved over to stare at the tapestry covered in flames and demons. “Heat has always been what I have looked for, I have no love of cold. Fire is always given a cruel reputation for destruction and pain, but it can grant hope and life to those if granted the opportunity and treated with respect.”
“Anyone else that was trapped in there could have fit through that opening with their armour on anyway,” grunted Jormangander, ignoring the rest of what Fenix had said.
“Are you trying to imply something?” There was an edge to Taiko’s voice.
“Yes, get your armour back on so that we don’t have to wait here any longer.”
“Security in this place does seem to be quite lax, doesn’t it,” suggested Shadow as he opened his eyes once more.”
“Someone with his power probably doesn’t expect anyone to have the balls to attack him in his own home,” muttered Taiko as he continued tightening straps.
“Funny how often they come to regret that arrogance,” mused Sophia as she looked at her reflection in her White Roses. “Although most don’t get to regret it very long I suppose.”
“Let’s add this Saluin to the list then,” grunted Taiko as he hefted his pack once more. “Fine, I’m ready, time for the next one.” Moving over to the door Taiko gives it a solid kick. Wood protested and groaned, steel screeched and scrape, but it stood strong. “Now you must be kidding me,” rumbled Taiko as he through his shoulder into the door. Still the portal stood defiant. With a snarl of rage he through himself against the door to have metal and wood fly apart beneath the weight of his fury and flesh. A hall stretched to either side before him as Taiko stalked off left.

As the others followed Shadow could not help to notice the glare that Lynn’s golden eyes were throwing in his direction. He winked at her and allowed a calm grin to cover his face and some of the tension to leave his shoulders.
Around the curving hallway their footsteps echoed until a door appeared before them. Taiko knelt before it, his helmed head pushed right up against the wood and iron. With every small adjustment to try and hear better an echoing shriek and grate would fill his ears, while when he remained very still with his ear against the inside of his helmet he could hear the soft crashing of waves.
“What do you hear,” Lynn asked as the others fell into place behind him.
“Sounds like voices speaking a language I don’t understand, and possibly the ocean.” The confidence in Taiko’s voice couldn’t convince the others of the absurdity with which he expressed it.
“You mean the waves of the lake possibly, not the ocean.” Lynn’s confusion was evident, and doubt was written over the faces of the others behind her.
“No, I mean the ocean. Let me show you.” Winding up Taiko sent his fist against the door where the lock met the wall. It shuddered, but only Taiko’s arm was left feeling hurt. He cast a large smile over his shoulder to the others and sent a booted foot into the door instead. The force of the strike echoed up and down the hall, but the door remained intact. “Good door,” Taiko muttered as he lined his shoulder up for a final strike. Once more he unleashed a great shout and drove his shoulder into the banded wood. A great cracked filled the air as Taiko bounced backwards and staggered into the far wall. “A really good door,” grimaced Taiko as his fingers gingerly prodded his shoulder.
“You might be losing your touch,” Sophia shot over as she knelt before the door. Drawing her lockpicks from her pack the lovely young woman set to work. “Lucky for you, I’m here.” A few quick adjustments, gentle prods and shakes within the lock, and Sophia reached up and turned the handle. It didn’t budge. Glaring at the lock with her grey eyes Sophia grabbed a different set of picks. Another series of fine motion, elegant twists and spins, light thrusts forward and pulls back before she tried the handle once more. Again nothing. Pushing her violet hair back behind her ears Sophia pulled the largest pick from her set, a sharp and jagged piece of metal covered in metal barbs like countless teeth. A flurry of movement took her hands as she set to work once more. Metal could be heared grating within the lock, the occasional spark illuminating her focused glare. When the door again refused to open however, Sophia stood up and through her lockpicks back into her pack. “Fuck it,” she sputtered as she stepped back from the door. “Someone else can try if we want to get in the room this badly.
“Don’t mind if I do,” Jormangander said with a grin as he walked over to it. Setting himself firmly along the ground Jormangander sent a boot hard into the frame of the door. Wood shuddered beneath the power of the blow, but it stood strong. Jormangander’s eyes narrowed.
“You want some help with this one,” Taiko offered as he straightened and shook out his arms.
“No,” Jormangander responded coldly. “You got three tries, she got three tries, I get three tries.
With a nod Taiko stepped back as Jormangander brought his foot back for another savage kick. Wood splintered around the lock, great cracks that stretched across the door’s face, yet still it stood. Eyes narrowed to slits Jormangander through his shoulder into the damaged door, and yet still it stood.
“Fine, we’ll finish this damned thing off together,” Jormangander grunted to Taiko. Standing to either side of the door the warriors each brought back a well muscled leg, and sent their booted feet crashing into the splintering door. Fine craftsmanship and a good lock could not defend the door from such an attack, and with a great tearing sigh the door pulled free from its hinges and collapsed to the floor.

Sunlight gleamed in the chamber beyond the broken door, bubbled and bent through windows of thick black glass. The strange angles caused by the bubbled glass strangely illuminated the indoor garden that filled the room. Earth planters both square and circular dominated the chamber, and the air was filled with conflicting scents; sweet and bitter, soothing and biting, weak and strong. Grasses and flowers from across the world grew side by side, bushes of berries and the vines of gourds. More unnatural plants also grew there; a great red grass covered in thick hollow barbs and thorns the colour of blood, and a low blue fern that seemed to twitch and writhe towards anyone that got close to it.

“This room is incredible,” crooned Sophia as she pulled an empty pouch from her belt. She set about gathering samples of different grasses and herbs. Over the leaves of some of the bushes she would squeeze the juices from their berries. “Do any of you know how hard it is to find some of these plants? Treatments to stop bleeding, to make the blood run more swiftly, agents that numb and others that inflame. There is so much here that could help us in our travels.”
“You know what most of these are,” Shadow asked as he looked around.
“Not even close I’m afraid, but I can identify enough that we could use even if only to aid healing. Those strange ones in that planter I won’t even go near, but I doubt they would be for helping people.” Her pointing hand led towards the red grass and crawling fern.
“I can now see why this room was so well sealed,” Fenix mused as he examined some of the plants. “It is so peaceful, and almost like being able to be outside once more. There are even windows again. Such things must be protected lest they be destroyed.”
“Fine, then I won’t burn these plants because the door stood against me,” grumbled Taiko as he looked around. “We aren’t here for plants though. We should keep going.”

Grabbing the last few herbs she wanted Sophia nodded. A last glance over the plants left smiles on the faces of Fenix, Lynn, Sophia, and Shadow as the group continued to circle as the hall lead them. Following the bend they found a door to their left, as well as to their right. Without waiting to talk about which should be opened next, Taiko vented frustration by brining his foot into the door on the right. This combination of wood and iron could not stand before Taiko’s rage, and a sharp snap as the lock bolt sheared and the door crashed into the wall behind. Beyond the door rose another brass spiral stairway, identical to the first.

“Looks like we’ve found the way up to the next floor,” Shadow said. “Clear the rest of this floor before heading up.”
“Yes,” responded Jormangander as he kicked open the door that had remained sealed behind them.

Darkness seemed to ebb and flow beyond the now gaping entrance. Cold stone stretched forward and to both sides, with dark splatters scattered all across its surface. Two suits of armour identical to those of the library defended the door from some unknown intruder. Directly before them hovered a grand steel cage, all black and barbed, wiry and hateful. To the right the room stretched around the curving wall, a small bookcase covered with old tomes crowded against one wall. Dominating the other wall was a long table. Bloodied and rotting remains of countless animals dotted its surface, as did the moldering remains of plants and darkly gleaming hunks of metals and other earthen materials. Fine glass vials lay scattered across the surface of the table, some holding turbid liquids. The chairs before the table bore countless scratches and burns, and barrels of green water crowded against one end.
Along the left of the grand curving room the sights that greeted the party were no more pleasant. More bookcases huddled around walls, with books of many different covers, including one of a incredibly light and supple leather. A stone altar rose up from the floor, stone blades and old blood detailing the scars across its surface. Piles of fabric crowded its base. Across from the altar a pair of manacles still hung from the wall, and in their rusted metal grasp flaked old blood and dried hair. Dominating that portion of the room was a great pentagram engraved upon the floor, three circles carved and inlaid with gold around it. Within the pentagram lay a familiar Daevar girl.

“Oh wonderful, the source of all my pain and loathing have finally graced me with their presence again,” grumbled The Tarnished Daughter with a voice filled with boredom. She had propped herself up on her elbows to observe the source of the commotion, but seeing those that were entering the room she allowed herself to flop back down. “My current predicament is entirely your fault you know. You all should be apologizing to me already.”
“Shut your mouth you little bitch,” Taiko growled back as he twisted the grips upon his nodachi. “You tried to have us all killed and you dare blame us. Karma seems to have finally found you.”
“If you had been an obedient dog and died when I wanted you to then none of us would have to put up with this immensely painful situation.”
“Oh, I’ll show you painful.” Daggers in hand Sophia stomped towards The Tarnished Daughter.
“I wouldn’t do that if I were you,” Shadow commented as he put a hand on Sophia’s shoulder to stop her. Aiming an arrow he fired towards The Tarnished Daughter, only to have the arrow splinter in a flash of sparks as it struck a dome of energy surrounding the pentagram.
“Now that’s too bad,” pouted The Tarnished Daughter. “One of you was supposed to walk into it so that I could witness what it would do to you. Still can’t die when you are supposed to it seems. I don’t think that they’ll come at me for a bit Fithos, so you might as well let them see you and taunt them with your presence. Then we can see how long before the big one decides he can pierce this barrier.” Her rune-less creature of darkness appeared beside her a moment later, gazing out of the circle with its eyes of cold starlight. Taiko merely ground his teeth as he eyed the pair of them. With a disgusted shake of his head Fenix moved over towards the altar and manacles and began shifting through the debris around them.
Jormangander looked over the room for a few minutes before he burst out laughing, a short, sharp laugh. “You insult us and say we should die, and yet here you are, nothing but an animal trapped in a cage.” There was satisfaction in Jormangander’s voice. “All your power, and minions, and you can’t do anything. We’ll just find and kill Zelna, and Saluin, and then we’ll have all the time we need to crack that little bubble you’re hiding in.”
“You speak well and nobly for a gutless traitor,” reposted The Tarnished Daughter. Jormangander’s jaw bunched beneath his beard. With a savage grin she continued. “All traitors will meet the fate that they deserve, you, my dear father. After Saluin brought us here he demanded that we serve him in thanks for him saving us from you. To think that we would need the assistance of a feeble old man like him! My father bent his knee all to quickly, disgracing himself with servitude.” The Tarnished Daughter leapt to her feet and walked so that her dark eyes hovered just within the barrier. “I however am born to rule over others, not serve them like a whipped dog. This Saluin believes that he has me trapped, but his arrogance shall be his undoing.”
“To think that you are judging him on his arrogance,” chided Lynn, her lips twisted in disgust.
“I’ve found the children we were looking for,” Fenix muttered from the piles he was searching. The tone in his voice suggested that he would have preferred to have not found them. As Fenix lifted the skull of a young child before him, the others understood why. “Lots of the bones show signs of cuts and breaks. They did not get to die well. This is not how a man should treat children.”
“You still think of your foe as some form of person, that is your mistake.” There was victory in The Tarnished Daughter’s voice. “Only by realizing that those that stand in your way are little more then vermin can you hope to prove victorious. Worrying about the collateral shan’t help you either.”
A bellow of rage tore free of Taiko’s throat. Lashing out with one of his hands he sent the helm of one of the armour suits flying across the room to clatter against the stone. “How dare you talk such after children have died in this very room where you are! Were you not protected by that infernal barrier I might forget my oaths and carve the flesh from you so slowly that you understand the pain and fear these children must have known. I would…” Taiko’s voice trailed off and his eyes opened wide as a small black butterfly flew from the chest of the armour. He watched it as the tiny insect flew across the room to land upon the manacles, its feelers brushing lightly against the hair and blood.
The focus in Taiko’s wide and frightened eyes was intense, all the world seeming to vanish except for him and that small black-winged insect. Grip tightened upon his sword. A single tentative step forward, to better align his body to cut it down should the butterfly attempt to wing away. The sting of a bead of sweat rolling into one of his eyes. His attention was so complete that Taiko didn’t even register the battleaxe swinging down from behind him.
A loud grunt was all the response Taiko could make as the heavy metal blade parted armour and buried itself in the meat between his shoulders. Staggering forward, blood seeping down his back, Taiko turned to face his assailant. Both suits of armour stood with weapons ready, and with a clatter the helm that had previously been knocked aside rolled across the floor to perch itself back upon steel shoulders. Curses rose from a half dozen throats as all eyes eyed the blood drenched axe held by one.
“Also, watch behind you,” The Tarnished Daughter said softly, laying down upon her circle of stone once more. She grinned over to the pair of manacles, where no butterfly could be seen.
“Oh, you will pay for that you little bitch,” Taiko growled to himself as he worked his shoulders. Every movement sent pain lancing up his back and blood spilling down it.

“I’ll help to cover you,” Lynn called over to her battered companion as she sent a flurry of psychic matrices against the armour holding the bloody axe. They reached around it, and moved within the steel. Threads shredded as the metal moved across them, pulling the powers apart. “They have no minds within those shells of theirs. This will be much more difficult now.”
From beside Sophia, Shadow pulled free his chakram from his belt. He hurled the weapon at the one bearing Taiko’s blood on its weapon. The circular hoop of sharpened steel jagged against the surface of its chest, scraping a small scratch from the metal. The suit didn’t even seem to notice.
Moving to put himself between Taiko and the second armour Jormangander lashed out with the hammer in his grasp. A great heavy echo crashed against the suits shield, the ring filling the close dark air of the chamber. Beside Jormangander rolled in Sophia, one of her White Roses lashing in against the mass of steel. The soft whisper of the fine blade washed over the shield. “Nimble aren’t you,” hissed Sophia.
Ringing and a grunt of pain came as Fenix’s hands were knocked aside by a bloody shield. The armour in possession of the weapon returned fire with his dripping axe. Flesh parted as the steel carved into Fenix’s stomach, adding more blood to the weapon’s head. With a shudder Fenix fell to the ground unmoving.
As the battleaxe continued its arc Taiko brought his blade down upon the armour before him. From the force of the blow Taiko’s nodachi sent the fiends metal arm crashing to the ground. To the horror of those that could see, the arm flew back from the ground to fuse back to its shoulder.
Still standing beside Jormangander, Sophia sent out another flurry of blade strikes against the armour. Each dagger shot bounced from the steel hide, no gaps in its defense evident. From where she stood Lynn took a deep breath and reached into a far recessed corner of her mind. Breathing out she extended her fingers towards the armour, with bolts of purple lightning washing over the grand steel men. Purple sparks rose and twisted up and down their frames, running off into the stone floor. Neither construct of steel was even slowed.
“This isn’t getting us anywhere,” rumbled Jormangander as he stepped sideways and swept his hammer out behind him. His weapon tore one of the pauldrons from the armour, sending it flying past Fenix’s head. The eyeless visor turned to regard the northman. With a clatter of steel the pauldron returned to its shoulder.
From its unstoppable movement the armour turned its blade upon Taiko once more. A light deflection from his buckler sent the axe-head to crash against his armour, staggering him backwards without real harm. “You think that you can stand against me you slow moving hunk of junk. I will tare you to tiny pieces with my bare hands if I must.”
Links of chain were split from Jormangander’s armour as the battleaxe tore into him and into his chest. Grimacing through the pain he merely turned an icy glare upon the unfeeling foe before him. Eyes met darkened visor and locked.
“There must be someway to beat them,” rasped Shadow as he pulled his sang kauw from over his shoulders. Charging forward he looked for a weakness, anything that he could exploit. There wasn’t anything that drew his attention. In frustration he stabbed out with his weapon, piercing a hole in the foe’s chest.
Eyes closed Lynn began to focus her mind heavily. With no time to think and concentrate Sophia brought one of her White Roses around again, scratching thin layer of metal from the chest, scraping away bolts. The bolts stayed where they fell.
Casting another frenzied look around at the two armoured beings, Shadow caught a glance of a small glowing nucleus in the centre of them. The mystic orb hovered right where a normal person’s heart would be. “Aim for the heart!” Shadow yelled to his companions, his voice cracking from the unfamiliar volume.
“Well then, lets see if this works better this time,” muttered Lynn as she fired off another volley of violet lightning. The massive steel shell interfered with the path of the lightning once more, sending a purple web of energy cascading across all sides. Once more the power did nothing before the matrices were dispersed. Lynn frowned heavily at yet another failed attack.
A heavy grunt escaped Jormangander’s throat as hammer and chainmail absorbed another heavy blow from the armour before him. The strength behind the attack sent Jormangander to one knee before he could stop it. As the battleaxe stopped moving the armour’s elbow moved to finish the movement of the strike, angled so that any arm within would have been snapped. A moment later and steel shell stood tall once more while Jormangander grimaced up at him.
Beside them the second armour brought its battleaxe in a swinging horizontal arc towards Taiko’s face. A well placed deflection from his buckler allowed Taiko to slip inside the axe’s reach. “Aim for the heart he says,” Taiko grumbled as he sent his blade forward. “If I could see it then this would be a wonderful plan. Well, here’s hoping for good fortune.” His nodachi sang through the air as it found a gap between steel plates. With a bright flash the small sphere of energy within the armour was sliced cleanly in two. As the multi-coloured lights gleamed, sparkled, and faded away as the pieces of steel collapsed in a mound upon themselves. “Well now, that actually worked,” grunted Taiko as he shook his head.
“If Taiko can strike at the hearts with his large blade I should have no trouble with my White Roses,” Sophia shook out her hair as she launched forward with her leading hand. Her startling speed did not avail her as she swung wide from her unseen target. With a snarl Sophia pulled back on her arm. A slight adjustment from the armour sent its steel shell clamping down upon her arm. Tearing through cloth and biting into the soft flesh beneath Sophia’s arm was trapped. Unable to move, all she could do was look up as the axe came down upon her. Blood gushed from her mouth and nose as the axe dove between collar bone and neck, burying itself deep into her chest. As the blade was pulled free it was swept sideways through the air tearing her left leg from her body at the knee. In a twitching mass Sophia collapsed, blood pouring from her wounds and staining her flesh, hair, and clothes. Only a few faint shudders wracked through her body before her grey eyes were left staring blindly forward.
“You bastard!” Taiko ran forward, standing over Sophia’s body and swinging his sword toward the gaps in its armour. A flicker of light as the ki enforced blade glanced off the side of the armour’s core.
“Sophia,” Lynn whispered, tears brimming in her eyes. She clenched her fists. “Jormangander, I’m doing it again.” Severity written across her face Lynn sent matrices from herself to connect Jormangander to Shadow. A flare as the matrices took hold, and Jormangander fixed his gaze on the now visible core of the creature.
“Time for you to fall,” Jormangander hissed as he swung his hammer towards the core. Shield and steel failed against it, and the great hammer crashed solidly upon the core. The magic orb vanished in an instant, and the armour collapsed as Jormangander sent its chest piece flying into the far wall. Seeing that success Lynn released Jormangander from their psychic connection.

Looking down at Sophia’s unmoving and unblinking form Shadow could only hiss between closed teeth. As his gaze fell to Fenix’s form he noted the blood still trickling from his wound. Not hesitating Shadow grabbed the bag of healing herbs Sophia had gathered and ran over to Fenix.
“Hmm, the worthless armour only killed two of you,” muttered The Tarnished Daughter, a bored tone filling her voice. “How much effort Saluin must have wasted acquiring those hunks of junk.”
“How dare you,” came a faint voice that filled Lynn and Shadow’s ears. Above Sophia’s corpse and ethereal form slowly swirled into being. A deep royal purple laced with green veins, with long sweeping hair and a figure many would die for. Sophia’s spirit glared towards The Tarnished Daughter. “I have no spit to use, but I can try to strike you somehow.” Flying forward her spirit struck the barrier, and in a shower of rainbow sparks it was sent hurling through the air. Flickering back and forth her spirit shook her head and pulled herself back together.
Fenix groaned heavily as Shadow stood up from him, and elaborate collection of bandages and herbs stuffed within his wounds. “That fucking sucked,” Fenix cursed as he lay upon the cold stones. “Far too much damage from that damned hunk of metal. Why aren’t we fighting normal things. You know, the kind that have flesh and blood.”
“Only one killed,” pouted The Tarnished Daughter. “They couldn’t even trade evenly. Pathetic.”
“You should shut your mouth you little bitch,” grumbled Taiko as Shadow set about treating his wounds. “We lost a good friend to those monsters.”
“They lost a good friend,” Fithos commented in a hissing and crackling voice from inside the prison. “Now how many times did you people slaughter my brother.”
“I can hear you know?” Sophia was out of sorts, gazing all around. “Must mean I won’t be able to come back.”
“No, you can’t,” replied Fithos, the ghost of sympathy in its inhuman voice. “Soon enough you shall have the privilege of returning to where all beings must go. Do not fear it, your fear cannot give me sustenance any more.”
“Strange.” Sophia turned to face Shadow, who stopped tending to Taiko long enough to bow towards her. “Well, this is awkward.”

Rolling Sophia’s body over, Jormangander had blood splatter over his hands. He couldn’t notice Sophia’s glare, or her disappointed look as the venom within her blood had no effect upon him. Deftly Jormangander went through her clothing, taking her pair of White Roses and slipping them into his belt.
Ignoring Jormangander’s disrespect of their comrade’s remains Shadow turned to face Sophia’s spirit once more. “What would you like us to do with your body,” Shadow asked calmly. “Given the difficulty of moving it out of here without making ourselves vunerable to Saluin.”
“I don’t know,” muttered Sophia, her ghostly hair shaking as she waved her head. “I’m just confused right now.”
“Do you have anything that could help us?”
“Would you like us to do anything with your belongings,” asked Lynn as she shook her head.
For a moment Sophia couldn’t think of anything to say at all. She looked over her companions, the fallen, the wounded, the looting, and those that were showing her respect. A smirk danced across Sophia’s face as she let her gaze stay over Lynn before she spoke. “Tell you what Lynn, you can take my pack, it has all my clothes in it. They’d look good on you.” And the small fortune in coin and that gem should help you in troubled times to come; she thought to herself.
“What are you all going on about,” asked Taiko as he shook his head. “Why in the Hells are you talking to air? It’s like you’re still talking to Sophia.”
Ignoring him, Shadow turned back to Sophia’s spirit. “May I have your daggers, or did you have other plans for them.”
“Because you asked so nicely, you may have all the ones you wish. Also, wear gloves before you get them.” Sophia’s smile remained. Placing thick leather gloves over his hands, Shadow began taking the other well crafted daggers from Sophia’s remains his eyes widened as he pulled dagger after dagger from folds in her clothes. In the end Shadow had ten new gleaming daggers in his possession.
“You all are wasting your time dividing up her belongings,” laughed The Tarnished Daughter. “You are all going to die here anyway.”
“Big words for a little girl trapped in a circle,” Jormangander growled threateningly.
“Perhaps eventually you will be able to get in here. Until then you dogs may bark and waver your hammers. Perhaps you should check the books, you might find something you like.” With a mocking laugh The Tarnished Daughter let her gaze wash over all of them, the smile upon her face cruel.
“That does it,” roared Taiko as he moved over and knelt before the runed circle. “We may not be able to break that barrier, but I bet I can get through the stone beneath it!” Continuing to roar Taiko brought his gauntleted fist down upon the stones over and over again. It struck, and struck, and struck, and struck, the air resonating with the storm of the heavy strikes. Blood soon ran from between armour plates, crimson dying his flesh until he could no longer strike the stones. The stones were stained, but they stood strong beneath the onslaught. Taiko panted and cradled his hand.
“Well that didn’t work,” commented The Tarnished Daughter. “Perhaps you should try you head for the next time. It must be harder then your fists.” Once more the mocking laughter.

With a hiss Jormangander returned to the hallway outside, taking the left turn to explore the rest of the floor. His steps pounded the stone beneath his feet, going far forward in order to reach the last closed door within this floor. One furious kick was all that it took to demolish the steel and wood. Splinters fell upon smooth white marble floors.
Within the smooth white room was had multiple basins of water held upon grand marble benches as well. Turning to the right Jormangander spied a grand pool of clear water with great stone steps leading to it. From within the water emerged a whiff of lilac. Shaking his head his gazed was fixed on a white curtained section in the back corner. Face twisted with rage he sent his hammer swinging through the air and curtains. A resounding crash ripped away from behind the curtains. Stepping forward Jormangander through tore the curtains down. Shattered remains of porcelain cisterns and chamber pot were scattered around his hammer. Picking up his weapon and cleaning it off on the torn curtains Jormangander then turned and left. With no further rooms to check he returned to his companions.

“There’s nothing left checking on this floor,” Jormangander grunted to his companions. “We should head up to the next floor and kill this wretch once the rest are done.”
“What was that breaking sound?” One of Shadow’s eyebrows was raised nearly up to his hat.
“A chamber pot.”
“Before you leave, would you like to have the ghost of your old friend tag along,” taunted The Tarnished Daughter, sitting upon the floor. “If you would like, I can bind her to this world so that she may continue to serve you.”
“What’s the catch,” grumbled Fenix as he stood, nursing his torn body. “Someone like you wouldn’t make an offer this generous out of the goodness of your heart. I still have doubts about whether you even have a heart, or if one of your creatures didn’t demand it when you spoke to them.”
“How very, very cold.” Feigned hurt dripped from The Tarnished Daughter’s voice. “To think that you would doubt my generosity. If you must know, the catch as it were is the fact that you could only keep, Sophia was it? Well, anyway the only way you could keep her with you would be to let me live. Once you kill me, you banish her back to her fate.”
“Manipulative little cretin,” growled Taiko. “I say we refuse to listen to anything else she has to say and kill the others. We have no need of her feeble offers.”
“How very cold, why don’t we ask Sophia what she thinks about this offer?” Turning her gaze towards Sophia’s spirit, both Lynn and Shadow noticed that The Tarnished Daughter’s gaze didn’t meet up with Sophia’s actual location. “What do you say?”
Sophia faced Fithos within the barrier. “She can’t actually see me, can she?”
“No, my mistress is incapable of seeing spirits unless they have appeared upon your plane,” came the hissing and creaking response from the dark spirit. “As we are right now, she will rely on me to inform her of whatever you say. I shall tell her true however.”
“And why would you do that? Hasn’t she caused you only pain and servitude? Why still help her?”
“You do not know what it means to be bound to someone else’s will, so I will forgive your ignorance. One with the strength to earn my subservience is worthy of following, so long as they keep true to what they say. My mistress is a capable, powerful, and intelligent master. Her father however is the reason that I am willing to tell you all that I am. He is the ignorant one that has only caused repeated destruction of my brother. I would relish the chance to kill him myself, but alas, my mistress still deems him necessary.”
“I see,” Sophia smiled a smile tinged with sadness. “Can she actually do what she says she does about binding me and granting me the power to stay?”
Fithos regarded Sophia’s spirit with her unnatural gaze for a moment before answering. “No, I don’t believe she could.”
By this point in the conversation both Shadow and Lynn had begun to chuckle. It grew slightly louder as the others eyed them. Finally The Tarnished Daughter could not tolerate being ignored any longer; “What the devil is so funny! How dare you all ignore me!”
“Funny, you don’t know what we’re laughing about,” grinned Shadow.
“He and I are both merely laughing that despite all your big talk you can’t actually see or hear spirits as they are right now.” Lynn’s face grinned heavily as well. “And Sophia rejects your offer.
At this loud announcement The Tarnished Daughter blushed heavily.
“Well now, that explains a lot,” Taiko laughed as he looked over to the smaller girl. “You feel the need to threaten us, pretend you’re superior, and try to unleash spirits upon us to kill us, because you’re useless by yourself.”
“Interesting,” Fenix mused. “I always assumed that if you could control a spirit you would be able to see it as well.”
“I will not be mocked by you garbage,” screeched The Tarnished Daughter as she turned to hide the hurt look on her face. “Then I’m done talking to you all now. You can just let your dead friend fade away then.”
“Fine, we’ll be back for you later,” promised Jormangander as he turned to leave. The others followed, some still chuckling, with the spirit of Sophia following at the back.

Climbing the spiraling stairs, Taiko cast another look over his shoulder. “Should we really just leave her unguarded like this? If she gets away from us again I don’t know how many people will have to die beneath my blade before I could feel better.”
“She should be fine trapped where she is,” Lynn suggested. “There’s no way for her to get out, and Sophia’s spirit couldn’t even get in, meaning her creatures should be trapped in there with her as well.”
“You keep talking to air and referring to Sophia like she’s still here. What are you going on about?”
“Her spirit is still following us.”
“Why?”
Lynn turned to face Sophia. Her ghostly visage shrugged before replying; “I wish to see this one last task through before moving on to where ever it is I am destined to go. These people resulted in my death, the least that I can do is know that they have been vanquished before I leave this world.”
After Lynn repeated her words to Taiko, the large man nodded. “Well, I can agree to that at least. Let’s see what this next floor will entail then.”

Mounting the final turn of the stairs, Shadow and Lynn caught a brief glimpse of a large man slipping away behind the stair’s column. His clothing was once incredibly nice, a thick purple velvet, but know it was torn and stained with blood and grime. The skull helmet that the man wore left no doubt in either of their mind who the man was.
Stepping into the small room, all eyes gazed over the walls and floor. The dark black stone bore countless newly carved glyphs and symbols. They swept around the floor in an expanding spiral pattern, with the innermost glyphs being filled and darkened with blood, those further out still bearing the red glimmer of fresh blood. Another door of steel banded wood stood before them once again.

“I see that you all have…” Echoed a dark voice from beyond the stairs. All in the party knew exactly who that voice belonged to.
“Come on out from behind the stairs Zelna.” The edge in Shadow’s voice was cruel as he interrupted the other man. “Nice and slowly now, if you don’t want an arrow in each eye.”
With a groan Zelna pulled himself out from behind the stairwell. Gashes along the fingers of his left hand still dripped blood. The rapier at his hip had not been cleaned for a long time. He kept his arms and hands raised. “There, I’ve come out as requested. Now we can talk. You don’t know what you are in for against Saluin, but I do. I can help you. All that you need to do to earn my help is to promise that afterwards you will allow myself and my daughter to…”

Roaring in rage Taiko cut off the rest of what Zelna was going to say. In two massive strides he was upon the skull-wearing man, nodachi carving through the air faster then the eye could register. The honed blade carved through the left knee of Zelna, removing the limb just as Sophia’s had been by the armour below. Then, bellowing curses to all the Kami of war that Taiko could remember, he brought his blade down upon Zelan’s body. The raised right arm did not slow the blade at all, the steel slicing cleanly through the limb and deeper and deeper into Zelna’s chest. The blade reached the man’s heart, and Taiko gave a final roar of triumph. With that roar his blade flashed for the briefest of moments, a brilliant white flame roaring down the blade to course into Zelna’s veins. With an inhuman scream the fire engulfed and consumed Zelna’s body, flesh bubbling, blood boiling in the air. Only a destroyed husk remained as it fell to the floor.
“Where did that come from just now?” Awe and respect filled Fenix’s eyes as he gazed upon the blade. “Never have I seen you wield cleansing flame such as that.”
“No idea,” growled back Taiko as he spat upon the charred remnant. He then began taking the few belongings that had survived; his rapier, his metal cased skull helmet, and after a moment’s consideration chopped the head off and took that as well. “Somehow I don’t expect that it shall happen again however. The feeling was one of unleashing divine punishment upon one that had wronged many in the world.”
“He’s dead now, so that’s good enough,” grumbled Jormangander as he sent his booted foot crashing into the door. With a snap he heard the bolt sealing it shear. A second boot sent the door skidding across the ground beyond. “Let’s go kill the next one now.”

Beyond the demolished door stretched a smooth walled tunnel of black stone. It stretched both left and right, flickering lights gleaming from within its surface only to fade away as swiftly as they arose. Fading darkness twitched along the halls.

“Which way should we go then,” muttered Taiko as he looked both ways. Neither side seemed any more descript then the other, as it swept away and down the side.
“Left,” grumbled Jormangander as he began striding left.
“Why left if you don’t mind my asking?” The sidelong glance Shadow cast him was full of suspicion.
“Considering how well the last time we chose to go left,” commented Lynn. “I see no reason for us to not follow this path again.”

There were no more comments as the group moved their way down the left path. Smooth stone echoed around them, although quieter then they otherwise should have been. It was as if the stone itself was consuming the echoes, drinking them in like water from a fountain. Not long afterwards there was spiraling around the curving path until blank stone greeted them on all sides.
“Well, this is disappointing,” glared Taiko. The wall remained unflinching beneath Taiko’s rage. “How dare it stand before us.”
“Let me have a moment or two to see if there isn’t something else here,” whispered Shadow. He moved up against the wall, deft fingers grazing over to look for any flaw in the fine craftsmanship. Every single inch seemed to blend perfectly, not a flaw, not a crack, not a seam. Light gleamed beneath his fingers but then vanished again. “Can’t be sure, but I can’t find any form of door or passage behind it”
“You remember what happened last time don’t you,” Fenix reminded him. “I do hope you are sure.”
“Can’t be sure in a situation like this, but I believe there is no door. That Saluin should not find a way out behind this wall I promise you, so long as he can’t travel through the wall somehow.”
“He is a mage,” considered Lynn, “I couldn’t do it with my own psychic powers, but I’m not sure if he could or not.”
“No problem,” grinned Jormangander. “All we have to do is kill the bastard before he can get away from us. Now it is time for us to double back around so that we can bring him down.”

Doubling back around they swiftly reached the entrance and its demolished door to continue along the side beyond. With Jormangander leading it takes not much time before a fork arose before them. Without even pausing Jormangander chose the left path, his boots crashing down upon them.
“Perhaps this time left will be successful,” mused Lynn as she and the others followed Jormangander.
Moving around the more rapidly spiraling corridor, Jormangander soon reached the end of the hall, yet another wall rising up before him. With a snarl Jormangander approached the apparent dead end, and fell from sight. As the others hurried to approach where Jormangander had vanished, they gazed down upon a grand pit. Echoing up the pit came a great splash. Peering down the hole, a grand pool of lilac scented water dominated their sight. Within the slowly flowing waves, Jormangander’s arms emerged from beneath the water. Fingers groping up upon the marble edge he pulled himself back up from within the water.
“You alright down there,” called down Lynn. There was no response before Jormangander left the tub and vanished from sight. “Well, he’s coming so I imagine that he can’t be too hurt at least. Do you guys think he is alright?”
“Just give him a moment and I’m sure he’ll return without much time.” Nodding to the others Taiko walked back towards the fork in the path.

Barely a few moments passed before Jormangander returned to them. His beard and clothes still dripped water. He didn’t speak upon reaching them once more, Jormangander merely walked down the right path. Once more they continued forward, once more the paths stretching forward and spiraling around. The spiral continued just enough to begin to cause the faintest sense of vertigo within those that traveled it. By the time they reached another intersection Taiko was clutching at his head and grimacing. Blade held out carefully before him, Taiko moved before Jormangander to walk down the left path.
Continued spiraling, the hiss and rasp of steps sinking into the frightening stone. From the flickering lights within the walls, strange shadows were cast haphazardly across walls and ceiling. These shadows assumed shapes of man, beast, and horrible monstrosities. Then they would vanish as swiftly as they appeared. Another divide within the path arose, and once more Taiko lead the group right. Another long, arching path lead them forward until before them stood a luxuriously carved wooden door.
“This seem too easy to anyone else?” Eying the door, Taiko remained a respectful distance away from it.
“You mean besides the long paths, branching mazes, and pit that washes those that fall down it,” remarked Shadow with a faint smirk. “I would not call that easy myself.”
“And that’s why you’re weak,” grumbled Jormangander as he looked at the space before him. “There’s some trick before this door, and I’m betting another pit.”
Casting a critical glance in front of the door, Jormangander eyed the stone intently. Before him Taiko did as well, and the large man grimaced as he noted the faintest of bends within the stone. “I think you’re right,” he rumbled as he looked over to Jormangander. He then pointed towards the suspicious patch of stone. “You see that?”
“Yeah,” Jormangander responded with a grunt. Stepping past Taiko, the northman raised one of his hammers high above his head, and brought it crashing down upon the stone before him. Little resistance met the great weapon as the floor parted beneath it, casting the fitful light down upon a blood-stained tile floor within a wicked barbed cage.
“Now where does this go,” The spirit that was once Sophia mused as she swept through her companions and down the pit. She found herself within the metal cage of the room where The Tarnished Daughter was bound. The young girl didn’t notice the spirit’s arrival, but her guardian Fithos was not so ignorant.
“So you have returned to us already?” The creature cocked its head to one side, so far that it was nearly sideway on its slender neck. “Have you reconsidered my master’s offer despite my warnings?”
“No, I still intend to remain how I am destined to be. My companions were merely curious as to where the pit above them would lead.” Casting a nod towards the otherworldly creature Sophia floated back up to her other companions. “Below is the room where The Tarnished Daughter is stored.” She informed her old companions.
“Thank you,” Lynn replied. “Also, I’ve been meaning to ask, what is it like to be, well, dead?”
“I don’t really no how to describe it,” said Sophia as she ran her fingers through her insubstantial hair. “I can’t really do anything, but some of you can still see and hear me, so it’s not really like I’m gone yet. I don’t know how long I’ll be able to stay like this though. I don’t want to be bound to serve, but I don’t know if I’m ready to leave yet.”
“Well, maybe once we’ve dealt with Saluin you will have a better feel for it,” Lynn smiled reassuringly. She attempted to place a hand on Sophia’s shoulder, but her fingers passed through the aura without any resistance. Both Lynn and Sophia’s faces crumpled slightly, sadness washing in.
With a sad smile Sophia piped up once more; “Perhaps we should get moving once more.”
“So, how are we supposed to cross the pit then?” The look on Lynn’s face was somewhat concerned. “I will admit, I don’t think I can jump that gap.”
“Then you should stay on this side,” grumbled Jormangander as he hefted a hammer once more. “Just give me a moment to break the door with my hammer, then anyone with the balls to jump the pit can make it over and kill Saluin.”
“There’s probably another door somewhere down the other paths,” suggested Shadow. “We could double back and check the paths that we missed earlier.”
“That is a horrible idea,” Taiko replied. “If the place was a maze, it wouldn’t have other entrances to it. He’s a mage, the pit probably doesn’t bother him.”
“I can’t imagine he would fly everywhere. In his own home you would think he would choose to walk.”
“You’d like to think that, wouldn’t you?”
“Fine, we can go look for other paths, but I still think my way would be faster,” muttered Jormangander as he turned around and stalked off down the hallway.
“Still a terrible idea,” Taiko continued to grumble as he followed right behind Jormangander.
“If it is such a terrible idea, why is it that we are doing it then?” Shaking his head Fenix walked just behind Lynn. The large man still clutched at the wrappings around his chest, the cloth thick with dried blood.
“Do you really think you could make it across that gap in your current condition,” Lynn replied. “I for one don’t even want to try it. I don’t jump well.”
“As you say, but I really don’t think this is the best idea. Something will go wrong.” He ran his fingers over his pendant, the stone warm against his skin.
“True, I have a bad feeling here myself.” Floating behind Sophia peered around.
“We need to find another way around in order to reach him Sophia. I’m willing to take the risk in order to hopefully be able to help.”
“Why are you still pretending to see Sophia?” Taiko stopped and looked over at her from one shoulder. “She’s gone, you need to accept that.”
With a sigh Lynn sent out a wave of psychic matrices to embrace Taiko’s mind. The supernatural fibers moved within him and connected his eyes with Shadow’s. For a brief moment the spirit of Sophia flashed in front of Taiko’s vision. The next moment Lynn released him from the matrix and pulled them back.
“I never said you could go into my head.” Taiko’s face went red with rage.
“I’ll ask next time,” Lynn responded with a soft smile that softened Taiko’s anger. “But now you know why I was talking to Sophia still.”

Moving back down the path, the last intersection they had reached came before them, Jormangander taking the right turn that would take them down the unexplored way. There were only a few steps taken before a soft thrum filled the air, and Taiko grunted as a heavy force struck his chest. Looking down, the fletched shaft of an arrow bristled between the metal plates.
“That cowardly son of a bitch,” Taiko complained as he pulled the arrow from his armour. The steel head glimmered with a green sheen. “He even poisoned it too.”
“How about you give that arrow to me so that I can return it to its owner,” Shadow smiled a sinister grin as he held out one hand.
Taiko looked down at the man for a moment, the cloak and hat concealing most of his form. The arrow remained grasped firmly within his hand. Then, with a snarl Taiko snapped the shaft with one hand, threw the pieces upon the floor and ground them into the earth with his heel. “No, you can’t have it.”
“Why the hell did you do that? That arrow could have been the difference between victory and defeat you know.”
“Poison and arrows are for cowards. You need to kill someone looking them in the eyes, their blood running down your hands as you drive your blade or fist into them. Killing them from a distance is an insult, and the greatest lack of courtesy and honour one can commit. When you can face another man in close combat, drive against each other with both your lives on the line only to be decided by your own skill and steel, then you can ask of me for things. Because then, you won’t need those cowards weapons.”
“Death and life is what defines victory or defeat.” The cold glare in Shadow’s eyes was serious. “Once one is in the ground it isn’t how they lived that people remember them by. It is how swiftly they are forgotten.”
“Nice little talk but its time for us to move on.” Turning around behind him Jormangander turned around and started walking again. “This way’s a dead end. Good job not dying Taiko.”

With another hiss Shadow followed the rest of the group as they moved back down behind them once more. Reaching the final unexplored fork Jormangander strode forward first, his hammer out. Coming around a sharp corner he could see yet another dead end.
“So, how much you want to bet there’s another pit before that wall?” With a few grunting steps Jormangander approached it with hammer drawn. Only two steps passed before the floor fell out from under Jormanangander’s feet. A roar of rage escaped his lips as he fell through the air, a solid crash echoing as he struck the solid ground down below. Cold black walls surrounded him, solid and glimmering with a flickering light that would then soon vanish.
“Are you alright,” called down Fenix, his voice concerned.
“Nothing else down here,” echoed up a voice from the pit. “Get me out of here so that we can get a move on.”
“Is that you asking for help?” Commented Shadow, his grin wry.
“No, it’s me telling you that we need to move our asses.”
“Fine, just give me a moment.” Rooting through her pack, Lynn’s fingers brushed against a coil of rope tucked away. The thick hemp was well worn, used to bind and aid animals what seemed so very long ago. A nostalgic smile pulled at the corner of her mouth as she drew the rope from her pack. Taking it out, she handed one end to Taiko. “You and Fenix had better hold on real tight, I don’t think I would be strong enough to lift up Jormangander.”
“Maybe if he didn’t have his armour on you could,” joked Taiko as he wrapped the thick rope around his arms. “You are taller then him after all.”
A heavy cough from within the pit allowed those above to grin for a moment or two before throwing the other end of the rope down into the hole. Weight and tension pulled themselves upon the rope. Bracing up top Taiko and Fenix heaved and pulled backwards, helping to bring Jormangander back up to the surface. Nodding over to the others the mailed northman charged back towards the pit and the sealed door behind it.

“So, back to my original plan.” Glaring at the door, Jormangander began to tie his own rope around the hilt of one of his hammers. “Time to open that door.”
“Don’t you think that we could try a more subtle approach,” suggested Lynn.
“You have three seconds to give me a better answer then opening that door with my hammer, leaping across and killing anything standing against me.”
“Well, we do have Sophia with us.”
“Yes, and she’s a ghost. Ghosts can’t open doors. Ghosts can’t carry anyone over pits. What do you think she can do then?”
“She could at least try to fly through the door so that she can tell us what is on the other side. Knowing would make things much easier for the rest of us.”
“But where’s the excitement in knowing?” The distress in Taiko’s voice was palpable. “There can be no thrill when fate holds no surprises.”
“Thrill is all well and good, but survival is something that you should hope for above your other things,” muttered Sophia under her breath. “I know that just as well as anyone. Please, I would be happy to take a look."
Flying over the pit, Sophia hovered before the door for a moment, the slightest of hesitations. Then with a stressing of her ethereal body she threw herself forward. The door repelled her and sent her staggering back. Her spirit slid across the stone floor, skidding to a stop against Taiko’s armoured leg.
“I don’t think I can make it through the door,” she muttered as she shook her ghostly hair.
“How can that be?” Lynn started over towards Sophia, but stopped when she realized that there was nothing she could do for the spirit.
“I’m not sure.”
“I’m sure it has something to do with magic, or some other hocus pocus,” grunted Taiko, readjusting his grip on his blade. “That’s the simple answer I wager.”
“Yes, of course magic is the simple answer,” Shadow replied with a grunt.
“So she can’t get in to the room through the closed door,” Jormangander muttered as he set about a wide stance. “Time to do things my way then.” Twisting his body around, Jormangander sent his rope tied hammer sailing through the air to crash into the door across.

Fine wood splintered like twigs as the massive weapon crashed through it, pushing the door open with more ease then it should have. Beyond loomed a great circular room, well lit by glass lanterns hanging on the door. The decorations were perfect mirror images from one side to the next; dressers, bookcases laden with tomes, shelves with small vials and items. Divided perfectly down the center of the room was a grand four-poster bed laden with silken sheets and curtains. Before it stood a reading table, a pair of chairs to either side.
Breaking the perfect symmetry of the room was an old man wearing luxurious robes of white silk. His long hair was clear and colourless, falling down the back of the chair to wave just beneath the cushioned base. His wrinkled hands clutched a tome, but as the man’s cold and colourless eyes observed the intruders the book was snapped shut so sharply it sent a thick echo through the room. His hairless face was creased from the frown that dominated his features.
“You wretched mortals are supposed to be dead you know,” the man whispered coldly as he rose to his feet, smoothing out his robes before him.
“Too bad for you. Now it’s time for you to die for your arrogance Saluin!” Drawing back his bow, Shadow sent an arrow screaming through the air towards Saluin. The feathers waved in the air as the arrow shot towards his heart.
“A traditional barbaric response,” muttered Saluin as he snapped his fingers. Wind filled the air around him, the tome on the table flying through the air to strike a far wall. As the arrow reached the barrier of air it hovered there as the winds howled and spun around it. With the faintest glance from his clear eyes Saluin sent the arrow to dig into the wooden floorboards at his feet. “Now that that has failed you, what will your next response be I wonder.” Twisting his hands around, threads of air moved between his aged fingers.
“Let’s see what you think about this response then,” glared Lynn before she took a deep breath. Temples throbbing she sent out a wave of matrices. The psychic threads slipped through Saluin’s shield to embrace his mind. Her voice echoed inside Saluin’s head; “Now I’ve got you. You shall stop all attacks against my friends and I.”
Saluin stiffened beneath the force of the mental restraints. A cold smile covered his face. “Interesting, it seems you have a psychic do you. Fair powers, but she is undisciplined. All I really need to do is, this.” Wrenching his own mind around in strange unpredictable patters he twisted free of Lynn’s matrices. His smile only grew wider. “You’ll need to do better then that my dear.”

Pulling back on his hammer’s cord, Jormangander was disappointed when his weapon failed to latch onto anything. Instead the steel once more found itself back within his unyielding grip. With a snarl he turned to face Taiko and Fenix. “I need to get across that gap. Throw me.”
“This is absurd,” groaned Fenix as he grabbed one of Jormangander’s arms.
“Absurd, but brilliant,” Taiko replied with a smile as he took Jormangander’s other arm. “If you kill him thanks to this technique we’re splitting the loot though.”
Not waiting for a response, Taiko and Fenix wound up and hurtled Jormangander through the air. With a roar of triumph the smaller man soared through the air. His path took him above Saluin, and at the perfect moment he brought his hammer down with both hands. The steel crashed down upon the barrier of air. Gusts burst out around the had of the weapon, tugging and pulling at clothes and furniture nearby.
The smile fell from Saluin’s face as the hammer continued to push towards him through his shield. “Impressive but only unleashed by savagery. You must be more refined if you ever hope to vanquish me.” A wave from his hand redirected the gale winds beneath his control, and Jormangander’s flight resumed as he tumbled through the air. Crashing onto the master bed towards the back of the room Jormangander vanished beneath a pile of silks. The bed splintered beneath him, coins showering the room around him, gold, silver, and copper all scattering to the floor.
“Look at all that money,” sighed Sophia as she flew across the pit to enter the room. Her ghostly hands swept over the gold and silver, but could do nothing but pass over them, never moving them in even the slightest bit. Her face crumpled in sorrow as she stared down at her useless fingers. “Can’t even gather wealth, can’t fight, can barely tell the others anything. Why did this have to happen.” She collapsed to the ground, soft sobs wracking her spectral body.

Bursting out from within the shattered remains of the bed, Jormangander charged towards Saluin’s back. His hammer was swinging down through the air before Saluin could even glance towards the commotion. Sweat sheathed Jormangander’s brow as the hammer crashed into the billowing shield once more. A shower of sparks and torrents of air spiraled out from the impact, but once more his hammer was forced away.
“Impressive, your strength serves you well even without refinement.” Saluin’s sidelong glance gave the impression that he was examining an interesting experiment and nothing more. “How much I could do with your blind power and rage at my fingertips. You would be much more useful then that shell Zelna.” Smiling to himself Saluin left the ground, wind billowing around him as he flew up into the air. He placed a hand upon a trapdoor placed within the ceiling, and a series of clicks and flashing wards vanished as the portal was pushed open. Moonlight streamed in through the opening.
“I’ll keep an eye on him to make sure that he doesn’t get away,” Sophia called out as she shook her head clear. With a deep breath, despite her lack of lungs, she rose through the air and moved to fill the door with her form.
“Can’t let anyone get away again,” Lynn reminded herself as she sent out another wave of restraining psychic matrices. The threads were once more able to reach Saluin, embracing his brain once more. “You will not run from us.” Lynn’s voice called as it filled Saluin’s mind. The man grinned downwards; “No, I think I will do as I please thank you.” Threads parted before him with a wave from his hand.

“Alright, send me over next,” muttered Shadow to his companions. “Saluin has escaped the rest of your reach. Now you’ll need to trust me and use my bow in order to bring him down.”
Fenix and Taiko grabbed Shadow’s arms before Taiko responded. “I hate that you’ll need to use that worthless weapon, but just fucking kill him.”
The pair hurled Shadow forward, the fired arrow driving up to pierce Saluin’s robes. Saluin glared at the damage to his clothes as Shadow continued to soar through the air beneath him. Landing upon the already shattered bed, Shadow grunted as more coins scattered from beneath the mattress. “How much wealth was he hiding under there?” Shadow groaned as he sat up.

Flying over to Saluin, Sophia ran over and through him, up and down. Her spectral hands passed through him, failing to pin him in place. The rapid movements from her didn’t even draw Saluin’s gaze. “I will stop you yet,” growled Sophia’s spirit as she continued her futile assault.
Noting his friend’s attempts to assist, Shadow found a renewed strength in his aching body. Taking his bow from one shoulder Shadow drew back an arrow with all his strength. Further and further back the bow curved, the notch of the arrow sawing back and forth across the string to make it scream like a banshee. For the faintest moment Shadow worried that his weapon would snap in his hand, and that was when he knew to release his arrow. The steel-tipped shaft lashed its flight through the air, and as it reached Saluin’s barrier the air swirled around the tip and parted beneath the force of the attack. The mild annoyance on Saluin’s face twisted in pain as the arrow buried itself into his stomach. Blood stained his silken robes as twisting threads of zeon spilled out from him. Shadow smiled and readied another arrow.
“You are now beginning to be less then interesting, and just insulting,” muttered Saluin. Grimacing he carried himself up through the door in the roof in order to reach out into the windy night air.
“Shit, he’s going to get away at this rate,” grumbled Taiko. Quickly looking around his eyes came to rest on Lynn. “How much can you hurt him if I throw you across?”
“Me?!” The look on her face lacked confidence, and spoke of more then a little fear. “I can’t.”
“Well, we’ll need to try something anything. Hold on tight.” Grabbing onto Lynn’s shoulder’s Taiko gave the woman a great toss.
Limbs flailing Lynn soared through the air. The rapid change in movement given her constant point of view from Shadow’s eyes allowed Lynn to watch her own flight. One thought that passed through her mind as she witnessed her progress came unbidden; “Hmm, I slightly resemble a flying squirrel…” Then she saw herself crash into the wooden floor and darkness engulfed her.
As the combination of his own aches and Lynn’s searing pain coursed through Shadow he was dropped to one knee by the staggering aches. He could taste blood on his tongue, yet none of it was his own. “Taiko, what the fuck did you do,” ground out Shadow between his searing pain.
Gazing over to Lynn’s unmoving form, Taiko’s eyes widened in terror. His helmed head lashed around swiftly looking for anything to explain. His eyes fixed on Fenix for a moment before Taiko responded; “It was Fenix, I swear.” The scorching look that Shadow gave him back left Taiko stammering further. “I really didn’t think that one through,” Taiko finally mumbled.

Moving beneath the open portal allowed Jormangander to catch a glimpse of Saluin’s waving robes. “No leaving yet, you need to die.” Jormangander heaved his rope-bound hammer up. The weapon struck Saluin’s barrier of wind. An echoing thunder boomed as the shield exploded outwards, wind pouring down in a column to hurl aside the small chairs beneath. Hammer falling before him, Jormangander nodded to himself and picked it up once more.
“Looks like he took out that wind for me at least,” Shadow groaned as he slid forward beside Jormangander. He sent his arrow up through the opening into the night air. Disdain filled Saluin’s eyes as he saw the shaft of wood streaking towards him. Puffing a slight breath from between his pursed lips a fresh cocoon of air surrounded him and send the arrow skimming off beyond the sight of the opening. Shadow grimaced up at Saluin’s bitter grin. The howling wind mocked those beneath it.
“So he can summon up more of those damned winds,” Jormangander’s cold blue eyes followed the flitting shape above. “Guess we’ll just have to keep breaking them down.” Another hurled hammer flew from his grasp, but this time the wind couldn’t absorb all of the impact. The heavy weapon thudded against the old man’s chest wind being forced from it. Upon that exhaled breath rode a few thin strands of zeon that Shadow could see. Saluin’s clear eyes glared downwards, wrinkled lips pulling back in a snarl.

“Alright Fenix, you up to travel across next?” Taiko looked the wounded man up and down. The wrappings around his body were crusted with the deep crimson of his own blood, muscled shoulders drooped, and his face was ghastly pale beneath his shock of crimson hair.
Returning Taiko’s gaze head on, Fenix bit his lower lip to stifle the cruel remarked that had brimmed over them. He looked himself over as well, noting his savaged frame, and gave a small chuckle that left him wincing. “Fine, why not. Throw me over. What’s the worst that could happen anyway?”
“Good, thinking positive,” Taiko replied with a wide grin. He grasped Fenix up under the arms and braced himself. “Once you’re on the other side, get some rope to try and help me over, what do you say? One, two, three!” At the end of the count Taiko thrust his chest forward to give Fenix the boost he needed to soar over the pit.
Rolling nimbly despite his wounds, Fenix rose smoothly from the wooden floor. He shoved a hand into Lynn’s backpack, and brought out a great coil of rope. Throwing one end back to Taiko, Fenix then proceeded to run around the reading table beneath the opening in the ceiling. Rope caught around the legs Fenix braced himself and grimaced. “This is a terrible idea,” he muttered as he kept his eyes on Taiko.
The whipping sound of an arrow passing his head made Fenix cringe. Luckily for him the arrow continued on its intended path from Shadow’s bow towards Saluin. Teeth still snarling Saluin brought his shield forward in a focused torrent of wind. The shearing winds tore the arrow into tiny fragments, scattering them far and wide. Chips of wood and steel fell like hailstones across those below, and now it was Shadow’s turn to snarl upwards.
“I have broken your toy, now it is time for me to see what we can do about breaking you,” Saluin rasped back, rage twisting his cold tone. With a soft snap of his fingers he sent rippling waves out from his fingertips. Around Shadow the waves fell, and every inch of wood they struck withered, blackened, and cracked beneath the assaulting heat. Standing perfectly still Shadow watched as the edges of his cloak were seared away, black chaff decorating their edges. None of the magic touched him however. “Hmm, seems my age is beginning to show in my aim,” murmured Saluin to himself. “A different approach then perhaps.”
“Either I’m better then I thought,” grunted Shadow, “or he can’t hit anything that he targets. I won’t complain either way.”
Watching the magic threaten to incinerate his companions Fenix glared over to Taiko. “Hurry up you great oaf, our companions are in danger! Or are you unable to jump that pit?”
“Never rush an artist, be it blade, music, or in this case jumping.” His reply came while Taiko tied himself to the one end of the rope. Then, with a great roar, the large armoured man threw himself forward. No grace followed his form as he moved through the air. Unfortunately for him, the edge of the pit rose up to greet him. Thanks to his armour the force of his impromptu landing only forced the air from Taiko’s lungs. Between his scrabbling fingers and Fenix’s hauling on the rope prevented Taiko’s rapid decent to the floor below. Heaving muscles from both men allowed Taiko to rise up, once more within the fray. He smiled over to Fenix as he firmed up his grip on his nodachi. “What did I tell you, pure art.” In response, Fenix could only roll his eyes.

“Well, now that you are all in one place it is time that I ended this farce I’m afraid.” Raising one hand above his head, a glowing sphere of flame appeared in Saluin’s hand. “This may have failed to deal with you the first time, but I suspect the storm of flame shall not fail again. A pity that I shall have to replace my belongings, but I’m afraid you have managed to anger me adequately. Time to die.”
Eyes firmly affixed on the fireball within Saluin’s grasp, Jormangander let out a bestial snarl. Both hands firmly grasping the hammer Jormangander spun in a great hammer toss to send the weapon spinning savagely through the air. Wind barriers parted beneath the force of the attack, and the warhammer wrapped Saluin’s frail body around itself. Fire vanished, wind ceased to blow, and the old man’s body fell from on high. The solid table he had been reading at before the interruption collapsed beneath the force of the falling body. With a wet crunch Saluin remained still, blood slowly pooling around his mangled body.

“Fire, fire, and more fire,” complained Jormangander as he pulled his hammer from the twisted corpse’s battered stomach. “There is far too much fire that stalks us like a pack of wolves.”
“Nice attack, but if he had of been on the ground I would have killed him first,” Taiko replied unimpressed. “At least Shadow didn’t kill him however.”
“Ungrateful bastard,” muttered Shadow as he walked over to Saluin’s body. Standing over Lynn, he tended to her gently. A few wrappings and a few herbs ground under her nose brought Lynn back to consciousness. He then turned to Jormangander, who was rummaging through Saluin’s belongings. “There is something that I need to take for The Blacksmith.”
“I killed him, I get what he has.” The tone in Jormangander’s voice brooked no argument.
“Don’t need any of his things, only his head.” Drawing his scimitar, Shadow waited for the okay.
“Fine, whatever.” Pulling a small throng of leather from around Saluin’s neck, Jormangander examined the broach on it. A small ebony disk, small otherworldly patterns inscribed on its surface. As Jormangander looked away and then faced it again, the patterns seemed to have shifted. With a grin he put the broach in his pack.
As Shadow brought his honed blade down to separate Saluin’s head from his body, Jormangander finished searching the corpse. One item, a thick black book bound in leather and written in symbols that he couldn’t understand, was quickly thrown over one shoulder to clatter on the floor. The other item of value that he found was added beside the broach. It was a small ring, an intricately carved silver serpent clutching a purple gem in its fanged maw. Brushing blood from his mailed hands Jormangander stood and turned around.
“Don’t you want the book?” Shadow gazed down at it, the stench of magic upon it unmistakable. “There’s an mystic air around it and the jewelry.”
“No. Take it if you want. I have no need for books, I have my other bobbles to keep as souvenirs.” Shadow scooped up the book without hesitation after Jormangander’s response.
“Well then, perhaps we are finally done here.” Shadow even smiled slightly as he flipped through the tome. The pages within were covered in indecipherable symbols and images. Shrugging he slipped the book into his pack.
“Not just yet,” grunted Fenix as he fell down upon the floor. “Shouldn’t we go take care of the little girl downstairs?”
“I’m sure she’s still trapped and can’t get away. We should deal with this room first. We should divide up the coin and ensure that none are lost.”
“With Saluin’s death, that might be wishful thinking.” Lynn turned to face Sophia’s spirit, wincing at the movement. “Could you go check on her to make sure she’s where we left her?”
“Happily. If she thinks she can slip away from us, she’ll have another with coming.” With a wicked grin Sophia vanished out through the door they entered through, eyeing the other door that still remained closed beside it.

Slipping down through the pit and Sophia once again found herself in the small barbed cage of the dark research chamber. Gazing towards the binding circle, loud curses streamed from her intangible lips. In front of her The Tarnished Daughter was happily strolling free from dark circle. In front of the small girl slipped Fithos, her gleaming and cold eyes focusing on Sophia. Fithos turned back to face The Tarnished Daughter. “My lady, may I scout forward in order to ensure that none shall stand against your escape?”
“That offer sounds wonderful Fithos.” Shaking out her long white hair, a cruel smile on her young face. “We have much to attend to now that father and that ancient bastard are gone. Should any of those foolish little mortals that still live attempt to get in our way, let me know so that we can destroy them.”
“Should any of the living get in your way, I will let you know.” Fithos wavered slightly, The Tarnished Daughter walking away and turning her back to them. Fithos focused her attention on Sophia, and one of her eyes vanished in an unnatural wink. “You’d best not let me see any of your living companions I guess. May terror fill the souls around you, so that you might drink it in and gain strength from their suffering.” Nodding forward, Fithos swiftly vanished down the stairwell outside.
“Well now, the master might be a bitch, but the minion isn’t too bad at all.” With a slight smile Sophia floated back up to the floor above. Returning to the master bed chamber, she frowned as she saw her friends organizing and dividing the coin that had spilled from beneath the shattered bed. Shaking her head Sophia cleared her throat daintily. “Sorry to interrupt your looting, but The Tarnished Daughter is getting away. The circle died with Saluin from the looks of things.”
“Crafty little bitch,” grumbled Shadow as he pulled out his scimitar and chakram. “Lets go put an end to this.”
“Definitely.” Taiko looked at the others and began to run towards the stairs. “She’s done too much already.”
Jormangander and Shadow set off in pursuit as well. Pulling open the other door, a long hallway lead before them, curving slowly around and forward. Before setting down it, Fenix turned back to face Lynn. The young woman stood unmoving. “You don’t intend to come with us Lynn?” Fenix peered at her critically.
“No, I don’t think I will.” The soft smile on Lynn’s face was sad. “I’m afraid I have no desire to witness this girl’s death. I know that she has done terrible things, having witnessed some of them myself. But still, she’s a child.” Lynn gestured over towards Saluin’s broken remains, her eyes closed. “I have seen quite enough death today. Just please, don’t let her escape. There will be far too much suffering should she escape once more.”
“You may consider it done,” replied Fenix with a solemn nod. Turning, he charged down dark hallway in pursuit of his companions.
“Such pain and suffering,” Lynn sighed as she sat down, legs crossed. She rested her head in her hands. “Sophia, if you are still here, I’m so sorry that you had to die here. This never should have happened.”
Sophia smiled despite herself as she looked down at her friend. “My dear sweet Lynn, you’ve always been too soft for your own good. It is endearing and charming, but it is not something that I could be. Not since far too long ago.”
If Lynn heard the words, she did not respond.

The rumbling of charging feet filled the tunnel around the running men. The path bore no branching halls, no traps or impediments. After following the slowly arcing circle a door greeted them. Pushing open the door, an earlier portion of the gleaming and strange hall greeted them. Beyond that hall the descending stairs greeted them.
“Always a bloody secret door.” Taiko could only shake his head. When both Shadow and Jormangander ran past him he could only shout out before following in pursuit. The three of them were running down the brass stairwell before Fenix appeared behind them and continued downwards as well.
Reaching the base of the stairs, a soft and chipper humming could be heard from the hallway beyond. Grips on weapons tightening, they walked out into the hallway beyond the stair chamber.
Skipping down the hallway before them was The Tarnished Daughter. Her long white hair swept around her in swaying waves as her steps bounced her along. Light notes of an unfamiliar song floated from her lips. She seemed to have no cares in the world. Her back was towards them. There wasn’t even the faintest hint that she may have noticed them.
“Hey bitch,” Jormangander called out from behind her.
The Tarnished Daughter was half turned around before Jormangander’s thrown hammer took her in the right leg. The force of the blow pulled the small limb from her body and pulled her around at even greater speed. Her increased momentum only aided in Shadow’s chakram to carve through the young girls stomach. Collapsed and falling upon the ground, gasps of deep blood flowed from her dark lips. Deep tears of blood flowed down her face as Shadow stood over her. His serious glare and pale face showed no sympathy as he raised his scimitar over his head. The Tarnished Daughter’s final words were drowned out in her own blood. A single slash from Shadow’s scimitar ended her gurgles in a moment. Shadow pulled a sack from his backpack, and slid the decapitated head within it. He tied the sack to his belt and nodded.
“Well, I guess that is that.” Looking down at the small body Taiko could only shake his head. “I’m glad that you two dealt with her. I’ll kill any man or boy that comes at me with a blade, but don’t go making me kill girls.”
“She wasn’t a girl,” Shadow responded with a snarl. “She was only a monster.”
“True, but she had some coin on her at least.” Pulling a small sack of coins from within her robes Jormangander poured out the handful of coins. He tossed half over to Shadow. “We both killed her. Here’s your share.”
“Thanks.” Shadow slid the coins into another belt pouch. “It’s nice to earn some of the coin for my work.”
“Just keep killing and you can keep the loot.” Turning around, Jormangander headed back up towards the stairwell.
Fenix walked down just before Jormangander began heading back up. “You finish her off already?” The red headed man noted the corpse behind the others. “Nevermind. Should we head back up to get Lynn in order to determine what we do next?”
“What we do next. I guess that is worth considering, isn’t it.” Running his mailed fingers through his beard Jormangander began climbing the stairs.

Upon reaching Saluin’s master chamber once more, the group found Lynn still resting with legs crossed upon the floor. Shadow also noticed that Sophia’s spirit was gone.
“I assume that it is done then,” Lynn asked as the others entered.
“Don’t you know?” Shadow was slightly confused. “You were using my eyes after all, weren’t you?”
“Yes, but I disabled that connection once The Tarnished Daughter was within your sight. For a few moments I merely counted in my head, until I hoped that it was over. By that time it was, and you were on your way back up.”
“Then yes. Things are done indeed. There is nothing more left to be done here except divide up the coin and return to Farna to report our success.”
“There is a great deal of coin here,” suggested Taiko as he began sorting through the coins scattered across the floor. Gold, silver, and copper slipped through his steel clad fingers. “Plenty of food and drink left in the kitchen as well. We should at least take advantage of the resources he left us before we torch the place.”
“What do you mean torch the place?” A threat crept across Jormangander’s voice. He continued to pile coins before him, separating them by their metals. “I’m starting to like this place. Also, I’m the one that killed Saluin. Therefore, it’s up to me to decide what we do with it.”
“What do you intend to do?” Rising to her feet Lynn cradled her battered body. “I can’t imagine that you actually want to keep it so that we can live here?”
“That was what I was thinking. Good location, away from all those pansy farmers, and it is filled with things to kill people that try to take my shit.” Nodding satisfied to himself Jormangander stood and hoisted Saluin’s corpse.
“Where are you going with that?” Shadow’s narrowed eyes focused on his companion and the body in his grasp.
“Getting this trash out of my bedroom.”
“If we’re hauling garbage out here, we might as well bring Baby Blue in so that he can rest out of the weather.” Grunting Fenix stood once more. “Personally, I don’t think he should get a share of the coin.”
“His presence might have been able to help save Sophia,” solemnly Lynn’s mouth curled down. “That man hasn’t earned anything.”
“So then, will we be staying in Saluin’s tower for very long then. I could use the time to rest.” Shadow began working out knots in his muscles as he knelt on the ground.
“No,” laughed Jormangander as he gazed around. “It’s Jormangander’s tower now. This room is mine. The rest of you can stay where you want. I won’t even charge you.”
“How very generous of you,” muttered Lynn, but a wry smile covered her face. The rest of her companions smiled as well. Given all that had happened, all of them could taste that this was only the beginning of things to come. Judging by the looks on all their faces, that future set out before them had best prepare to quake beneath their passage.

Copyright © 2012 by Jeremy Marshall

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