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The Phoenix Curse : Chapter Twenty-Two
 
Out of the Kettle....

“It does nae appear tae be a village plagued by an army of the dead,” Chelan idly commented as they hovered outside the front gates.

There were a few residents milling about, conducting their business, but no patrolling guard or watch even walked the boundaries.

Tolian frowned. “Perhaps Ironmonger has not yet attacked.”

The meran did not respond, instead knitting his brow and looking once more over the village. It was indeed a simple town, houses built from wood with thatched hay roofs. The streets were trodden, dirt paths, and the main road led directly to a well at the village center. Scraggly fowls clucked their way around a tiny pen to the right of the gate. Feng Huang did not appear to have anything worth stealing.

And yet, Chelan still could not shake the feeling that something was off about the entire situation. He was certain he was missing some key fact, some observation eluding his triple-sight.

Fuki let out a pleased sigh. “Ah, Feng Huang is still safe,” he proclaimed joyfully. “That is glorious news.” He turned and bowed to the entire group. “Come. I will take you to my home.”

Jareth, however, scowled as his exotic brown eyes flickered over the seemingly defenseless hamlet. No one appeared worried or concerned; the residents, he counted a total of five, did not have the haggard look of the oppressed or the shadowed fear of those awaiting death. Even he was beginning to get a bit suspicious, wondering if Ironmonger was some clever ploy of Ahriman’s.

He glanced back at the old man, choosing his words carefully. “Your people don’t seem... afraid.”

Fuki dropped his voice and stepped closer to the mercenaries. “It is because they do not know,” he whispered urgently. “After the panic from the messenger, I spun a great tale to calm them so that they would not hurt each other in their fright. They think it was the attack of some great boar, one that the hunters later caught and felled.”

The captain’s eyebrows rose in surprise. “They believed it?”

“The townspeople trust Fuki,” Marquel explained, his back to the mercenaries. “He’s the most educated among them. That is enough for leadership.”

The old man inclined his head. “Yes. And so it is with their trust that I ventured out to Voulos in the attempts of finding someone that could save us before Ironmonger attacked. You, Captain Jareth, are the one that I have found.”

Marquel snorted, glancing over his shoulder to regard them with disdain. “I still say that their assistance is not necessary. However, the longer we stand around here prattling on, the closer Ironmonger looms this way. We have to make plans for the defense of Feng Huang and the mayadalan immediately.”

The skipper narrowed his eyes but said nothing, returning his attentions to Fuki. “Please, lead the way.” Still, his worries were not assuaged. Something here made his skin crawl and his head pound with the beginnings of an ache.

The elderly man smiled, big and bright, revealing that he still retained all of his teeth, even at his age. “I am most grateful, Captain Jareth.” He bowed again. “Now, if your companions would follow me, I will lead you to my home. It is likely the only place we could all fit comfortably.”

Fuki rejoined Marquel and proceeded to lead them through the hamlet. He talked amicably with his companion, who responded only vaguely. The others trailed after, absorbing the odd stares they were receiving with patience. It was something they were used to since they were such an eclectic group, not to mention the fact that they were loaded down with weapons.

Nevertheless, Chelan was nibbling on his lip in thought, one fang threatening to pierce his flesh as he felt a chill of foreboding. “I do nae trust this old man… or his companion, but I cannae put my claw on the reason why,” he murmured idly, more to himself than anyone else, but the quetz beside him was thinking the very same thoughts.

Lucas nodded in agreement. “My senses are tingling,” he responded, casually reaching out to feel the threads in the area. “There is the crawl of magic in the air, slight but definite. But as much as I can see, none of these simple folk could be anywhere close to Adept.” He turned towards the prophetess, who was walking near to them but hadn’t heard a word of their conversation.

“Oi, Ciara!”

Her head snapped up, and she blinked. “Can I help you?”

The redhead grinned. “Is that an invitation or…” He waved a hand as if she should fill in the blanks.

Ciara sighed in exasperation. “Was there something important you wanted to ask me? Or did you just want to see if I noticed the magic as well?”

Lucas winked. “You answered my question, but you know, we could always work on that ‘helping’ if you want?”

Whap!

A large hand slapped him across the back of his head as Tolian walked by, glancing at Lucas from the side. “Leave your flirting until after the mission is over, oh powerful quetz,” he said with an inelegant snort.

“There’s so much love in this group I can taste it,” Lucas responded with a smile as he rubbed at the back of his head. But his grin fell, face turning serious, lowering his voice as he spoke to both Chelan and Ciara. “If you feel what I do, then you know something is up.”

“Yes, but far be it from me to mention anything to Jareth. I don’t want to go through the same argument of usurpation all over again. I’m sure whatever it is, we can handle it.” She sighed and rubbed at her temples. “It makes my head ache.”

Chelan patted her on the arm, watching as she looked at him strangely. “Aye, that one be the most stubborn human I have met.”

A few minutes later, everyone was standing outside Fuki’s home. As they had expected, it was larger than most of the other huts but was still small in comparison to the houses in Niantha. The old man entered first, gesturing the others to follow, but Jareth moved to the side of the door, grabbing Chelan and Tolian as he did and pulling them aside. Lucas remained behind out of pure curiosity.

The brunet lowered his voice. “Something's off about this.” His eyes flickered first to the meran and then to his human friend. “I’m certain there's something that Fuki's hiding. Find it.”

Chelan nodded. “Aye. But how nae ask Rivalen? He be the stealthiest.”

“And also the rudest... well, aside from that Marquel boy,” Tolian retorted. “Jareth wants us to ask questions. And although you're meran, you've a friendly face, as do I. The people here will talk to us. Rivalen’s looks attract a different sort of attention. We don't need him any more testy than usual.”

Jareth sighed, gaze moving towards the doorway. “Exactly. With our group as large as it is, I doubt Fuki'd notice if the two of you slip away.” He turned his attentions to Lucas, who had invited himself into the conversation, and smiled thinly. “And you, oh curious one, can stand guard outside.”

Lucas grinned, silver eyes sparkling. “Yes, sir!” He gave a mock salute. “Though I’m not sure how I could handle so much fun.”

The skipper eyed him, and as Chelan and Tolian waved their goodbyes and headed in opposite directions, Jareth addressed their most recent addition, “This is not a game.” He directed his hand towards the redhead for emphasis. “I expect you to act properly given the situation and take my leadership as absolute if you're going to remain a part of this crew.”

The quetz’s grin never faltered as he calmly regarded the human before him. “Go on inside, Captain. My eyes are sharp,” he assured with an impatient flick of his hair. His steady gaze portrayed his seriousness and dependability, though he took up a cocky stance and gave Jareth a teasing thumbs up.

The brunet considered throttling him, not sure how to handle their strange new acquaintance, but he soon pushed the urge aside. Jareth had the feeling that although playful, he could count on the quetz, strange as he may be. It was something about the look in his eyes, something haunting and ageless that implied Lucas was far older than he seemed… probably even older than Chelan. The captain couldn’t be sure as he knew nothing of quetz culture or lifespan.

Nonetheless, the Adept had a certain assurance about him, a way of acting that clearly declared he was more than comfortable in his form and had been for quite some time. As if he had long ago accepted who and what he was.

The skipper bit back his unnecessary retort and stepped past Lucas and into Fuki’s house, the door sliding shut behind him. Immediately, the cooler air struck him, a welcome relief from the blazing midday suns, but it took a moment for him to adjust to the dimmer light.

Everyone was present, save Fuki. Yet, if the sounds of dishes clattering from another room were any indication, the elderly man was somewhere within hearing range. From his vantage point at the door, Jareth could see several other doorways leading to separate rooms, a strange thing indeed since it had certainly seemed smaller from the outside. Regardless, the brunet briefly scanned the room, quickly locating his companions. In his absence, the others had taken it upon themselves to scatter comfortably around the rather large area.

Predictably, Rivalen was leaning against a wall in the shadows, arms crossed over his chest as he stared mutely at the floor. Marquel was unsurprisingly mimicking the exact same position on the opposite side of the room, although Jareth was unable to see the cloaked man’s expression. They were so alike and yet startlingly different.

The women were seated in the random chairs scattered about, all of them covered in colorful fabric of flowery design that matched the paintings hung along the walls. Of course, Jareth was left with nowhere to sit unless he considered plopping down on the floor, and with the weariness in his legs from the march through the trees to the out-of-the-way village, he was sorely tempted to do so.

As he considered his prospects, he noticed that Ciara and Rivalen were ignoring each other once again. The prophetess was pointedly keeping her attention on Phaedra, while the mimicker seemed to find something on the ground particularly interesting. He had not been able to pry from Rivalen what had happened the day before, but he had the feeling that he probably really didn’t want to know.

However, this wasn’t the only thing bothering him. There was something nagging on his subconscious, something he couldn’t quite put his finger on, but as he glanced around the room, Jareth thought perhaps he knew what it was.

This place was odd. From the outside, Fuki’s home appeared to be a plain hut with nothing of value inside. But within, it was decorated simply but colorfully with a larger interior. The floor was a polished wood, which gleamed a burnished bronze, and magical torches provided illumination for the entire room. Even the walls were painted, and Jareth would have thought that in a village like Feng Huang such a thing would be a luxury.

While he mused on the decorations, Phaedra gave him a confused stare as she searched for their missing companions. She raised both eyebrows, an unspoken question on her face, even as the others looked up at him expectantly. After all, he was still standing in the doorway. The blonde opened her mouth to speak when Fuki suddenly made an appearance, balancing cups on a wooden tray as he walked.

“Ah, Master Jareth,” he said, smiling when he noticed the brunet. “You were delayed a moment, I see.”

The old man was sharper than the captain had originally thought, and Jareth nodded, an answering lie slipping easily from his lips. If he could do it to his friends, the ones he trusted the most, then giving one about his absence to a stranger was simple. He already had one formed before even a second had passed.

“I hadn’t buckled my sword tightly enough earlier,” he explained, moving away from the door and further into the room to stand next to Phaedra. He casually leaned against the side of her high-backed chair, crossing his arms over his chest and sighing with faked irritation. “A belt had fallen and the sheath was slipping off my back.” He hoped that his friends picked up on his unspoken message and didn’t point out the other three’s absence.

Fuki inclined his head in understanding, moving graciously into the room as he placed the tray on the center table, the cups clinking together. “It happens, I suppose,” the elderly man commented as he began to distribute the drinks.

While he was distracted with that, Jareth’s group discreetly looked at their commander, not believing his excuse for a second. The captain caught their eyes, nodding imperceptibly before turning his attention back to their employer, who was trying to give Rivalen a cup.

“What are we to do about Ironmonger then?” Fuki questioned as the offered drink was declined, and he moved to seat himself.

They fell silent for a moment, contemplating his rather innocent and important query. Feng Huang certainly wasn’t a village built for withstanding an army, and neither were the citizens in any sort of readiness for battle. Further, Ironmonger could easily disperse his forces within the surrounding forest, making their job even tougher. They had few options other than evacuating and waiting for Ironmonger to come. It was either that, or they would have to take the mayadalan and meet the madman before he stepped through the gates.

Ciara opened her mouth to make a suggestion, but Jareth spoke before she could, stopping her with a look, his eyes flickering to Marquel. “We can’t plan to do anything about Ironmonger until that business in the forest has been cleared up. I ignored it until now, assuming that he would explain, but since he hasn’t--”

Marquel’s head snapped up instantaneously, and he cut off the other man’s words. “That is my affair, and I don’t have to explain myself to you!”

Jareth narrowed his eyes. “I don't trust you,” he openly declared, though he kept his voice soft. “We met you in the forest, surrounded by the still bleeding bodies of dead men as you rifle through their pockets. We’ve yet to see your face, and you've given us nothing but disrespect. I can’t rely on someone I don't trust in battle.”

Marquel straightened, unfolding his arms until they hung loosely at his sides, his body taut with anger. “I don’t need your approval. I am here for Master Fuki.”

“So you say,” Rivalen inserted, smooth voice cutting into their conversation. “But beneath the hood, you could be anyone. We have a job to do and don’t need children interfering.”

Sensing another argument, Fuki quickly intervened. “Marquel has my trust, Captain Jareth, though I also wonder how he came to the forest.” He turned towards his cloaked friend, face beseeching. “Would you explain to me? And remove your hood; it’s been a few years since you came to Feng Huang. I am curious as to how much you’ve grown.”

There was a tense silence after Fuki finished, and they all waited for the other man’s response. The seconds ticked by like minutes. Finally, with a heavy sigh, Marquel relaxed his angry stance and raised his gloved hands, pulling at his hood as he spoke.

“I never could remain angry with you, dear Fuki,” he replied softly. “I owe you much. It is the least I can do to respond to your wishes. Conflict is not in anyone’s best interest, after all.” The last of his tone carried a derisive note, as if he blamed the entire affair on Jareth and his ruffians. His hood slid back with a quiet rub of cloth on cloth, passing by a pair of elegantly pointed ears. The others were able to get their first look of the man beneath, and his almond-shaped eyes gleamed darkly as he took in their somewhat surprised expressions.

Marquel was indeed young, even more so than Rivalen. Truthfully, he was probably closer in age to Navar, though it was hard to tell with the verdillan. But his appearance was far different than anyone else present. His hair was long and black, and he kept it in a braid at the nape of his neck. A few wisps had escaped, however, gathering around his face and softening his sharp features. Yet, his eyes were the most startling, a lovely shade of purple with streaks of gold trailing through.

Fuki studied his friend carefully, nodding his approval. “In these five years, you have indeed matured. You are more like a man than you were before.”

Marquel inclined his head in acknowledgment as he folded his hands inside his cloak. “The world has left me no choice,” he put in quietly, not looking at anyone else. If it weren’t for the calm air of assurance about him, one might have almost thought that he was feeling self-conscious.

“It must have been about eight years ago when we found him,” Fuki continued blithely. “He had washed up on shore of the Iapetus. The waters tend to be turbulent that time of the year, and it was obvious the lad was the survivor of some horrible shipwreck. He was so ill, bleeding and slashed all over. So my dear Midori and I took him in,” the elderly man said, more to himself than to them, sipping his tea. “It took him nearly a month to recover.”

Marquel shifted awkwardly. “ Master Fuki, I do not think that such tales are necessary,” he ground out.

“A victim of a shipwreck?” Phaedra repeated, truly fascinated. “How terrible. Do you remember much?”

“Do you remember much?” he mocked in a breathless voice. “The sailors struggling to breathe as they sank further into the water. The fish coming up to nibble on their bloated bodies. No, I don't remember much at all!”

The woman paled as deathly silence permeated the room.

“You were the only survivor?” Navar asked several moments later, her curiosity getting the better of her.

Marquel scowled. “So it would seem.”

“But why were you on the ship to begin with? Was your family aboard, too?” Phaedra questioned in a sympathetic tone.

He sucked in a breath, nostrils flaring. “It is it truly necessary to divulge my entire life history?” Marquel demanded, completely disregarding her query. “Your captain insists that he must know the truth of what happened in the forest, did he not?”

“Tell us how a child could inflict so much damage,” Rivalen insisted, immediately putting the conversation back on its course.

There was something in the boy's story that didn’t sit right with him. It was odd that there were some things he was wiling to divulge, while he shied away from the most mundane. Although Rivalen couldn’t fathom whether Marquel hid some secret or just refused to lie, skirting around the truth, he knew that his words would provoke the boy. He wanted to know just who they were dealing with.

Lavender eyes immediately turned in his direction, narrowing and drawing together in irritation. “I’m anything but,” he replied icily. “You are not that much older than me, so I suggest that you hold your tongue.”

Rivalen merely raised an eyebrow, wondering how far he could provoke the boy before his control faltered. Marquel's tone sounded forced, and the mimicker continued to study him, observing silently.

Phaedra heaved an irritated sigh, having had enough of the three males and their dominance issues for the day. She rose to her feet, muttering something under her breath that sounded suspiciously like, “If I didn’t know better, I’d say all three of them were related with all that snarling.” She said it just loud enough for the other women to hear.

“If you boys are through,” the blonde began reprovingly, her voice holding an air of annoyance. “I think it's about time we find out more information.” Her gaze traveled over the three, Jareth somewhat twitching under her glare. “So tell us, Marquel, why were you in the forest?” she questioned again before sitting back in her chair and waiting for his response.

He made the barest of movements, eyes flickering towards Jareth and Rivalen. “I had heard rumors of a man seeking not only to build an army but also searching for the legendary mayadalan,” he explained succinctly. “I knew it was in Feng Huang and came to warn Fuki, but I was attacked. They thought me an easy target. I merely showed them different.”

Ciara rubbed her chin. “That doesn’t explain why you were in their pockets.”

“I am a wanderer. They were dead. As such, they no longer needed their possessions.” He made a disgusted face. “However, they were both poor and unskilled. It was a meaningless venture.”

Phaedra shook her head. “For something so simple, you put in a great deal of effort to keep it quiet.”

Marquel snorted. “I was merely keeping you from my business. I could have been doing something as innocuous as picking flowers and still would not have wanted to say so. Besides, you would have been suspicious based on my appearance alone, no matter what I was doing.”

Jareth made an annoyed sound before turning towards Fuki. But the elderly man was no longer present; he wasn’t anywhere within sight, for that matter.

“Where’s Fuki?” the brunet demanded as he glanced around.

Navar rose. “He went through there a second ago.” She pointed to one of the doorways. Something nagged at the back of her mind as she caught a strange scent in the air. It was vaguely familiar, but she couldn’t remember from where.

“I’ll go check.” The verdillan stepped away, sniffing the air lightly. The smell was stronger the closer she got to the kitchen.

Jareth scowled, rubbing the back of his neck uneasily. He exchanged a glance with Rivalen, seeing the mimicker visibly stiffen. He had noticed it, too.

Ciara stood, her senses screaming danger. The threads of magic within herself literally coiled, warning her that something was imminent. She opened her mouth to speak, but in that very moment, just as Navar poked her head into the kitchen, an explosion rocked the house.

Orange flame burst from the doorway, and even the verdillan’s excellent reflexes couldn’t move her out of the way fast enough. The fire exploded outward, throwing Navar back several feet, only to crash into a wooden table. Despite her light weight, it splintered, the dishes shattering. She crumpled soundlessly, head lolling to the side.

The house rattled from the force of the blast. Shrapnel in the form of burning wood and random cutlery was thrown in all directions. Everyone dove for the floor as Phaedra let out a startled scream, and black smoke poured from the charred doorway. The paintings were knocked from the walls, their thin frames cracking under the force of their fall. The roar of the inferno was deafening, a great rumbling as they struggled to rise on shaky limbs. Everyone choked on the thick smoke, even as the front door burst open and Lucas rushed inside.

“Navar,” Rivalen called, his voice expressing emotion for once.

The verdillan’s still form laid amongst the remains of the table, her face and clothes blackened with soot and her eyes shuttered closed. He choked on acrid air and clambered off his knees.

“What in Nar’sa?” Lucas shouted as he dashed to Navar’s side, barely giving the now revealed Marquel a passing glance. “What is going on?” He put out a hand to cautiously feel her throat, the fluttery but still present pulse enough to assure him that she would need medical attention. But they hadn’t the time, not with the building coming down around their heads.

Jareth coughed, “We’ve... been betrayed!”

“No!” Marquel denied, finally managing to stand. “I don’t believe you!”

Phaedra shook her head, still on her knees. “That's not important! We've got to get out of here.”

Marquel glanced once towards the burning kitchen before helplessly shrugging. He headed towards the exit, the others followinghis lead, Rivalen scooping Navar into his arms. Marquel reached for the door when it suddenly slammed inwards, hitting him directly in the chest. He grunted and was thrown backwards, only to stumble on a piece of broken furniture, falling to the ground as the door cracked under the pressure of the blow. The stench of decomposition filled the air, and his eyes widened in surprise, even as the others sucked in horrified breaths.

The undead were coming inside, and though deceased, they moved just as quickly as the living. Rotting flesh hung from their bleached bones as the unmistakable odor of decay accompanied their entrance, overpowering the smell of the fire and forcing everyone to gag. The undead were not bothered by this apparently and continued to filter in, the creak of skeletons and the shift of metal weapons and armor the only sounds audible. Rust coated their chipped blades, and what little clothing they still wore was torn and stained with blood. An aura of fear followed their arrival. The fearsome Death Dread.

Jareth’s group barely had time to react before the abominations crowded inside. Marquel looked up in horror, mesmerized by the glowing embers in their eye sockets that seemed to hook into his soul. He frantically attempted to rise, only managing to prop up on his elbows. Instantly, his body paralyzed with fear, and he couldn’t even draw a breath, his mouth gaping in revulsion. He realized his predicament too late; there was nothing he could do. He was trapped by the power of a long dead... something.

He couldn’t do anything as the undead fell upon him, rotting jaws and clawed hands ripping at him. The boy's screams died in his throat as he was bitten on his shoulder and then again on the soft flesh of his thigh, sharpened teeth slicing through the fabric of his pants. Marquel barely realized that his cloak had been torn away, literally ripped to shreds. It felt like his very mind was being driven down to the deepest parts of him, his vision dimming. A coldness seeped into his belly, his insides overtaken by ice.

“Marquel!” someone shouted in the background, but he wasn’t sure who. He was too focused on the cold sweeping through to really care.

A flaming arrow flew by, exploding into one of the attacking monsters as Lucas darted forward, grabbing onto the back of the boy's collar. The quetz attempted to drag him, throwing out another spell at the walking dead, this one of sharpened ice crystals. Phaedra appeared at the Lucas' side as Ciara and Jareth moved in tandem, blades swinging to keep their attackers at bay.

“Darkness… in the shadows of… glistening black wings… falling… forever,” Marquel chanted, his words making no sense at all. He started to tremble, the pupils in his eyes expanding and then shrinking in an oddly elliptical fashion. “Makashi, ousu anum?”

Jareth’s enormous sword cleaved through the walking corpses, chopping them into bits that writhed around the floor, still searching for a victim. In the meantime, Ciara was using both her magic and her weapon to drive the monsters away. But still, the group was being pushed back towards the burning part of the house. It was virtually impossible to defeat the undead, having to completely incinerate their bodies or hack them into enough pieces that they were unable to move.

Lucas gritted his teeth, dropping to one knee as he nocked another arrow. Their enemies were too close for him to risk dragging Marquel. It was up to the normally bubbly blonde to restore the boy to consciousness as Lucas shot arrow after arrow into the mass of corpses that were pouring in from the open doorway. There seemed to be no end to them.

“Breygo!” Jareth cursed as he blocked a corroded sword. “Isn't there another way out?” His eyes darted around frantically, searching for an exit as he ducked a rotting spear and slammed the flat of his blade into a corpse. The thing crashed into the near wall but was up again in seconds. Jareth coughed as the acrid smoke continued to fill his lungs, brown eyes burning and reddening from the greasy fog.

“Death… comes in the fire… and burn. Burn!” Marquel mumbled, eyes still convulsing. His limbs began to curl and unfurl, his body shaking terribly. “Byao haron nitash, makashi.”

Phaedra paled. Soon, he would completely succumb to the Death Dread unless she did something to stop it, but what? She had no clue, and Lucas was far too busy trying to stave off the horde. The blonde angrily swiped at her eyes, rubbing the soot and ash collecting there as Marquel continued to rant and rave, a crazed half-smile forming on his lips. Any moment now, he would attack himself, if only to be rid of the imagined pain and agony that would rip through his body.

“Jareth! Behind you!” Ciara called out, pointing to the captain’s right.

The brunet cleaved through another soldier, dashing to the door, but it was locked.

Rivalen coughed, shifting Navar’s weight as he hovered near to Lucas, unable to either transform or draw his sword in the close quarters. His lungs felt heavy, burning from the heated air and the fumes, and his head whirled around as the left end of the house began to buckle under the flaming wood, collapsing inwards.

Slap! Slap!

In a frantic effort to stop the ranting, Phaedra resorted to smacking Marquel across the face. His eyes widened in surprise, and his oscillating pupils stilled in their movement, purple chasing away the encroaching blankness that had clouded in.

Harush,” he murmured, a blind hand groping for something. “Stop… so cold. Niv drashi.” He coughed violently. “By Namian, get them out of my head. Out!”

“Fight it!” Phaedra urged. “By the gods, Marquel! If you’re anything like you claim, you can beat this!”

Rivalen tossed his head, observing the boy with a calm detachment. “He’s succumbing faster than normal,” he stated as he dodged the rusty axe of an undead, still holding Navar. He kicked out, knocking the creature back and edging closer to Lucas.

“There’s nothing I can do to stop it,” the quetz explained as he glanced down at Marquel, looking at the boy strangely before casting another stream of ice, driving back the walking corpses. Though he could barely see in the all encompassing smoke, Lucas tried his best. “He’ll have to fight it on his own... if his heart’s strong enough.”

With a great growl, Jareth gripped his sword with both hands. “Drax this!” he uttered as he raised the huge weapon and slammed the blade into the wooden door.

It cracked and imploded inwards, revealing a hallway that led to a second door. And beyond, the bright light of the suns shone through.

“Let’s go!” the captain ordered as ran to his friends, shoving them towards the exit.

Jareth grabbed hold of Marquel, pulling him to his feet and dragging him along as Phaedra supported his other side. Rivalen followed Ciara, who was in the lead, casting water along the walls to prevent the fire from blocking them, and Lucas covered their backs, shooting more arrows from his seemingly endless supply.

The prophetess coughed and sputtered as she emerged into the bright light of day and the reasonably clearer air. She moved to the side as the others dashed out after her, Rivalen dropping to one knee and putting down Navar as he struggled to draw in a breath from his burning lungs. Tears streamed from his reddened eyes.

Lucas was the last to leave, Ciara and he quickly drawing together to shut the door and seal it. The quetz marked symbols into the wood as she chanted. Afterwards, Lucas sucked in huge gulps of clear air, his face streaked with smoke and his hair blackened. The prophetess heaved a sigh of relief as she leaned on the door, starting in surprise not an instant later.

“Start a fire, and you are certain to smoke the rats out,” came a derisive voice from just beyond them.

Everyone whirled, peering into the smoke that was gathering around them, only to start. They had jumped out of the kettle and into the bonfire.

Surrounding them, there was an even larger group of the undead, which completely blocked any escape routes. These were in considerably better condition than the ones in Fuki’s home, some still having the flesh on their bones, although it was rotted. Regardless, all held the same orange-fire gaze that burned into the retinas of Jareth’s group. They knew better than to hold their eyes, however, lest they suffer the same mind-numbing fate as Marquel.

And in the middle of the half-circle, a man stood. He had silver armor that was decorated with bleached bones, a clear mockery of what a knight normally wore. He had no helm, leaving his features plainly visible, and his dark eyes lacked a pupil, much like the fallen Inteus. Two swords were belted at his side, and at his feet, Fuki cowered, kneeling as he stared at his burning home.

Syl Ironmonger.

“I’m sorry, Master Jareth,” the old man babbled into his hands, beginning to sob. “But I had no choice. They'd already taken Midori. I couldn’t allow any more suffering.”

Ironmonger chuckled, a dry rasping mock. “Yes, dear Fuki was such a brilliant actor, was he not?” he questioned rhetorically, smirking as he looked at the group. One gloved hand settled on the elderly man’s head in a motion that might have been considered tender were it not for the situation. “But as of now, his purpose is complete. I find his presence distasteful.”

Ironmonger sneered, and before anyone could react, he shoved Fuki to the ground with the tip of his finger. In the same motion, he drew a sword, slicing the old man’s head clean from his shoulders in one fell swoop. Fuki did not even have time to scream.

“And this one,” Ironmonger intoned, making a gesture with his hand. The crowd of undead to his right parted as two corpses approached, dragging a beaten and bloody mess between them. “This one threatened to destroy my fun, but I quickly convinced him otherwise.”

The thing was dropped to the ground, and Ciara’s eyes widened in horror.

“Chelan!” Phaedra exclaimed as she moved to his side.

Thankfully, his chest still moved, but he was unconscious. The woman quickly turned him over, careful to avoid the silvery rivulets of blood since it was poisonous to humans, even the slightest touch quickly absorbed through the skin. She briefly wondered if the same fate had befallen Tolian, if he was even now dying. But the thought was lost as the meran moaned piteously.

“Ha!” Marquel laughed, still not in his right mind. He frantically fought in his own head, but he was unable to find himself beneath the coldness or the invading nothingness. “By Cel’li… bony fingers grasping…” He screeched loudly and fell to his knees, his hands scraping at the ground, body jerking to and fro. “Get out of my head! Harush. Harush, makashi!”

Lucas dropped down next to him, shivering at the look in Marquel's eyes. “I am here, little one. Do not worry.” He stroked a hand through the boy's sweat-soaked hair, wishing with every part of himself that he had the skill to soothe a fractured mind. “Don't cry. It will be alright.”

“Ironmonger!” A growl of anger drew everyone’s attention to their leader. He leveled the Xaldin at the other man in the same moment that he wiped at the soot and sweat on his brow. “Don’t think that you can get away with this, chienza. I should kill you where you stand.”

The knight simply laughed, boisterous and mocking. “Such petty words from a weak and petty man. I find them mildly amusing.” He gave a dismissive wave. “People like Fuki are expendable. I need the artifacts, and he was going to find them for me. My mistress will be pleased.”

Phaedra jerked, gaze focusing on Ironmonger as he spoke. From her position at Chelan’s side, she was able to see him more clearly now, and the blonde froze as she gaped up at him.

“Danya?” she murmured, eyes impossibly wide. “Danya, is that you?”

*****

Cassandra Smith
Copyright 2006-2008
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