Rion - girl, student, studious and smart, shy and poetic, a writer

Wordmaster
by Meghann McCall
mpence5888@aol.com

Based on characters by Leo and Ban
http://go.to/leoandban/

"Princess, I'm only going to ask you this one last time." The man's long white ponytail swirled as he turned towards her. "Marry me."

"I'd rather die." Princess Minami Agnis spat out the words with disgust. "You're evil, Khayyin. Why my mother ever made you a Wordmaster is beyond me. You have too much power already; I will not give you any more." The princess' ruby eyes flashed.

A low growl that began in Khayyin's chest ripped from behind his teeth, and without thinking he raised his arm to backhand the young girl across the face.

"Are you sure you want to do that, Khayyin? Remember what happened last time," she smirked.

Khayyin hesitated, arm in midair. She was right…the last time he had slapped her his hand was nearly burnt away. If it wasn't for his own Wordmaster abilities he'd have been scarred for life. He lowered his arm, but his eyes burned with hate. "Your abilities may be greater than mine, Princess. But there is one spell that even an Agnis cannot overcome."

"You wouldn't dare."

"You leave me no choice." Khayyin sneered at her. "Your mother is dead, Princess. You're the last of the Agnis line, and unless you take a husband and produce children, Jiniarin is doomed."

"I will marry, Khayyin, never fear. But I'm not marrying you. You know as well as I that the man I marry will receive the powers of the Agnis family, powers over life and death and everything in between. We Agnis have guarded these abilities since the dawn of time, for from them come our Wordmasters and the fabric of Jiniarin itself." The princess shook her head, and the long golden comb in her hair sparkled. "Your power has been perverted, Khayyin, by your lust for revenge. At one time you were my mother's favorite Wordmaster of all. She thought the sun rose and set on you."

Khayyin's eyes narrowed at the memory. "Yet she married another," he growled.

"She married the man she loved, Khayyin. There is no crime in that. My father--"

"Your father was a stupid fool, whose only use to the Queen was in her bed."

The Princess' eyes flashed again, and this time Khayyin found himself flying across the throne room. He did not stop until his body had been smashed into the stone wall nearly twenty feet away. "Do not ever, EVER speak of my family in that way again, Khayyin, do you hear? My father was a good and courageous man, who cared about our people and understood the way of the Agnis family. You were always too selfish and power-hungry. Of course Mother could not marry you…you would have destroyed Jiniarin with your greed."

She continued to stare at him coldly as he picked himself up from the floor. Khayyin was a tall, muscular man, and not easily injured. The princess knew, however, that he would be feeling those bruises for the rest of the day, and she could not help a small smile of satisfaction. She'd never liked the man. He was heartless, manipulative and far too cold. Minami had never understood why her mother liked him so much. "I will never marry you, Khayyin. My heart belongs to another."

The Wordmaster regained his stature with little difficulty, and lifted an eyebrow as he moved towards her throne again. "Ah, yes. The noble Ryu Aquinan, pet general of Her Highness' army. Hardly a surprise, that one." He smiled quite unpleasantly. "How like your mother you are, my dear, falling for a pretty boy with a big sword…and not much else."

"Be careful, Khayyin. You try my patience."

"No!" His amber eyes glittered as he took several quick steps toward her. "You try MINE, Princess. I'm tired of this little game. I lost your mother to an idiotic fop, but I will not lose you!" He yanked the black stone from his neck. "If I cannot have you, Princess, then no one shall." Before Minami realized what he intended, the Wordmaster thrust the stone above his head and began to chant. "Infinitas orbis detineo mei inimicus! Infinitas orbis detineo mei inimicus!"

The princess' eyes grew wide as she slowly recognized the power that he was using against her. "Khayyin, no! You can't!" She put her hands up, and red light burst from her fingers. "You must stop! You can't do this, the time globe will destroy Jiniarin!" But her powers were no match for the gathering of dark energy that Khayyin was summoning with his Words.

A swirl of black power began to envelop the Agnis Princess, completely unaffected by the life stream she was casting at it. The strength of the time globe lay in its material; because it was made of time itself, life and death were of no consequence to it. Minami could not stop it.

Khayyin laughed as though he were mad. "You see, Princess? You are not the most powerful being in Jiniarin after all! I have the power to command even you. If you will not marry me, then you will live for eternity with no one at all. Infinitas orbis detineo mei inimicus!"

"Khayyin, please…please stop this," she pleaded, but it was too late. She felt the sudden rush of air as the globe solidified itself around her like dark, barely translucent glass. Suddenly everything was deadly quiet. "KHAYYIN!!!" she screamed, rushing forward to pound on the globe's smooth surface. But her cries were swallowed up by the timeless silence. He could not hear her. No one would ever hear her again.

The Wordmaster laughed once more, though it was a much feebler sound this time. So much energy…he had never imagined that creating the time globe would take up so much energy. He'd never felt quite so weak before. Still, no one had called upon the time globe for over a million years. No one was even certain if the globe was real or a myth. He had proven it now…all those years of study had paid off in this one triumphant moment, and he was not about to spoil it by letting the princess see his sudden fatigue. So he smiled, and forced his quivering muscles to hold him upright. "Eternity, Princess. That's what the time globe is. An eternity of being alone. If I can't rule Jiniarin by your side, then I'll rule it without you."

She could not hear him, but she could make out his lips moving and knew that whatever he was saying, it did not bode well for her beloved world. She could hardly believe what had just occurred. The time globe was the stuff of legends. For thousands of years no one had even truly believed it existed, and yet here she was, trapped inside it like a helpless mouse. She cursed herself for having ignored the rumors, the whispers that told of Khayyin's frantic search for the power of the globe. She'd considered it nothing more than idle gossip, and now she was here, trapped. Forever. It was a concept too heavy to be grasped. Her attention was distracted, however, by the sudden appearance of a young man at the door to her throne room. "Ryu," she breathed in horror. "Oh, no…Ryu!"

Khayyin turned to find the Princess' general rushing towards them, and he sneered. "Take another step, General, and I'll kill you right in front of your precious little princess."

"What have you done, Khayyin?" The handsome young man's eyes darted from the Wordmaster to the imprisoned Agnis Princess, and back to the Wordmaster again. "Release her immediately."

Khayyin shrugged. "I wouldn't do that, even if I knew how. There's no escape from the time globe, General Ryu…surely even a common soldier would know that much."

Ryu's dark blue eyes snapped. "You won't get away with this, Khayyin. The other Wordmasters…they'll stop you."

Khayyin grinned even wider. "I'd like to see them try. The time globe isn't the only trick I have up my sleeve, little man. If the Wordmasters rise against me, I'll be ready for them."

"We'll see." Ryu cast another longing look at his Princess. He knew if the legends were true, she wouldn't be able to hear him, but still he could not help speaking to her. "Be strong, Minami. I'll free you from that thing, I swear it."

Khayyin snorted with derision. "You? A soldier? YOU'RE going to free her? Now that I'd like to see." Ryu glared at him and took a step forward, but the Wordmaster held up a hand. "Ah ah ah…I wouldn't do that if I were you. Two words from me and you'll melt into the floor like a block of ice. And right in front of the princess too; wouldn't that be a shame?"

The general's eyes were shooting daggers. "I WILL free her, Khayyin. And I'll see you destroyed as well, if it takes the rest of my life." Ryu spun on one heel, his long sky-blue hair billowing behind him, and he left the room.

Khayyin turned to the princess. His strength was nearly gone now, and it was all he could to do remain on his feet, but he couldn't resist one last, triumphant smile. "Sleep tight, Princess," he chuckled before turning to leave the room.

Minami found herself alone in the maddening silence. She sank to the bottom of the hard, dark globe in a cloud of red silks, and tears dropped onto her cheeks. "Oh, Ryu…be careful." She knew that he would never just let her languish here for the rest of eternity. But she also knew that Ryu would never have the power to defeat Khayyin. The other Wordmasters would help, of course, but if Khayyin had the power to summon the time globe she didn't even want to think about what else he was capable of. One thing that the legends had been quite clear on was that the time globe brought death to Jiniarin. Minami didn't know what was going to happen, but she knew that before it was over, a lot of very good people were going to die. She prayed fervently that Ryu would not be one of them.

**********

"Whatcha writing, little sis?" Areku "Red Fox" Kino snatched the notebook from Rion's hands with a devilish grin. "Let's see…beautiful red haired princess, yup…stuck in some prison, yup…evil wizard with plans to take over the world…" He rolled his eyes as she snatched the notebook out of his hands. "Come on, Rion. It's like you write the same stories over and over again. Same characters, same plot. Can't you come up with anything different for a change?"

Rion stuck her tongue out at her older brother. "Fox, you're such a jerk."

"But ya love me anyway," he responded cheerily, ruffling her short dark hair. "I'm not the one who came home crying from the writer's conference because everyone said my stories were all alike. I'm just trying to help you out here."

She sighed and pushed her glasses up onto her nose. "I know, Fox. But every time I try, she just takes over my fingers. It's like I can't write anything without her."

"The redhead?" Fox ran fingers through his own bright red hair, the hair that had earned him his nickname, with a grin. "Rion, you've had dreams about that redhead chick since you were a little kid. Maybe she's like some kind of symbol of your beloved big brother. You know, like I'm the inspiration for your genius and it's manifested in that princess person."

Rion punched him in the stomach playfully. "That means my subconscious mind sees you as a beautiful, dainty girl."

"Perish the thought." His brown eyes, so dark they were almost black, widened in mock horror, and she giggled.

"Hi, you two!" The siblings looked up to see Jana coming towards them, and they smiled simultaneously.

"Hey, Jana." Fox stood up from the table, reached out and pulled the brunette in to kiss her on the temple.

Rion shook her head with amusement. It was still a little strange, having her best friend dating her older brother. Still, Jana had always been more like a sister to her than a friend, and she couldn't have picked out a better girlfriend for Fox. The two of them were perfect for each other, she had to admit; Jana, with her tomboyish confidence and athletic energy, was a great complement for Fox's mathematically-inclined curiosity and chronically optimistic cheerfulness. The only problem was, sometimes she felt like a third wheel in the relationship. Especially in moments like these. She cleared her throat pointedly, and the two lovebirds turned to look at her.

Jana smiled, that great big smile that flashed the whiteness of her teeth. "Hi, Rion. Writing another story?"

Rion nodded, pushing her glasses up again. "Yeah."

"That redheaded princess still in it?"

"Yeah." Rion blushed a little. "I can't seem to write a story without her."

"Hey, that's all right. She's a great character. Besides, you got your first book published because of her, remember? How many sixteen year olds do you know who have books published, huh? You're like a national celebrity." Jana winked at her and went to sit next to her at the table. Fox slid into the booth opposite them, and started playing with the straw dispenser.

Rion sighed. "I know, Jana, and I keep telling myself that I should be happy with what I've accomplished, but…now it seems like the gift is gone. Or maybe I only had that one story inside of me, and now that it's been written, I can't write anything else." She shook her head in frustration. "I thought if I wrote the book she'd leave me alone. But she's still there, every night, in my dreams. It's like she wants something from me and I don't know what it is."

Fox cocked a scarlet eyebrow. "Aw, it'll come back, sis. You're a great writer. Everyone says so." He looked over his shoulder, down the aisle. "Hey, where's the waitress? I'm starving." As if on cue, a pretty blond woman in a pink uniform and white frilly apron walked up to them.

"What can I get you folks?" she asked in a bored fashion.

"I'd like to have a smile, pretty lady," Fox responded with a grin, for which he received a sharp kick from both Rion and Jana. "Hey!"

The waitress couldn't help giggling at his injured expression, while both girls were glaring at him. Fox looked up at her and smiled wryly. "There, see? Much better. I'll bet you haven't smiled all day."

"I think you may be right," she answered, still smiling. "Now, what can I get you folks to eat?"

From across the room, two pairs of eyes watched the group chatting with the waitress. Both were focused on the youngest of the two girls, the one with glasses and dark hair. "Are you sure, Oni? She doesn't look like much to me," the older one said quietly to his companion.

The younger man nodded, the white section of his bangs falling into his eyes. "She's got Words, General Ryu. Powerful ones. I can feel them from here, and I never felt them this strongly before from any of the others. It's got to be her."

Ryu shook his head slowly, tendrils of blue hair wisping about his shoulders. "She's smaller than the others, and so weak! Oni, we've run out of time. We have less than a month left to find another Wordmaster for the Princess; only enough time to try one more possibility. I don't think we can afford to waste our efforts on this one."

Oni made a fist. "Trust me. She's the one we've been looking for. She can do it."

Ryu sighed. "A century, Oni. A century of searching every dimension of existence and we have yet to find a true Wordmaster. They've all died trying." He gritted his teeth. "All those thousands of people, giving up their lives to try and save her. We have only a few weeks left now, and then all is lost. The disease is spreading fast now." He looked down at his hands, which were covered in soft white leather, but it seemed like he could feel the alien blue veins that matted the surface of most of his skin. He could feel them pulsing, spreading their poison through his body. Looking up, Ryu found his partner inspecting his own blue-streaked hands. "Oni, if you and I die before we release her, Jiniarin has no hope. You're asking me to pin our future on this little wisp of a girl."

Oni nodded. "Yes. I am. Because I believe she can succeed where the others have failed. Please, General, trust me."

The general's sapphire eyes met the earnest brown ones, and finally Ryu bowed his head. "Very well. I suppose I'll have to…we have no time to find another. This girl will have to do…and we had better pray to every power that flows that she is indeed successful. We cannot afford to fail again, Oni."

The man with the two toned hair nodded, and turned to look at the girl again. She was strong…he could feel her Words singing to him in a way that he had not felt since Caronieva's death. She had to be the one. They had never encountered anyone with this much power before, in all their searching. "Should we take her now?"

Ryu shook his head. "Not here in the open. We must wait until she is alone. We will follow her."

The two watched as Rion, Fox and Jana ate their lunches, joking and laughing. They were completely oblivious to the blue haired general and his companion, sitting only a few tables away. When they had finished eating and paid the check, the three rose to leave, and Ryu and Oni followed.

**********

Several hours later, they were still following the little group. The three had visited several shops and even gone to a roller skating rink for a while, but though Ryu had watched them closely, there had been no opportunity to take Rion away without the others noticing. It was as if she was somehow attached to the other two, and could not bear to be alone for even a moment without them.

Oni looked up at the sky as they were leaving the rink, and pointed out the brilliant orange sunset. "General," he began, and Ryu nodded impatiently.

"I know, I know. It's getting late." He looked again at the three teenagers wandering down the sidewalk in front of them, and he sighed. "I don't think we have a choice. We'll have to take all of them."

"All of them? Are you sure?" Oni's eyes widened. "General, we've never taken more than one…"

"Desperate times, my friend. We have no more options. We must get her to Ketsukan before the end of the month, and the Tehman are sure to make that difficult. We take all three."

Oni knew better than to argue with Ryu when he took that tone, and he nodded resignedly. "Look, they're heading into the park."

"Good." Ryu nodded, his catlike vision scanning the park closely. "It seems empty enough. Only a group of children on the play equipment and an old man by that tree over there…We can take the girl and her friends without disturbing anyone else. Come."

Rion laughed and punched her brother in the arm for about the fiftieth time that evening. "Fox! You just think you're so smart, don't you?"

"That's why they call me Red Fox," he retorted with a grin. "I'm a red haired genius."

"More like a red haired smartass," Jana whispered conspiratorially to Rion, who giggled.

"I heard that," Fox declared, pretending to be hurt. "Jana, love, that's not very nice of you."

Jana raised a golden brown brow and chuckled. "You haven't been nice all afternoon. What's the matter, Fox? Can't take a dose of your own medicine?"

"How about a dose of this," Fox responded, stopping suddenly to pull Jana into a fierce kiss.

When he released her, Jana was smiling. "That's my kind of medicine," she replied softly, pulling his head down to kiss him again.

Rion rolled her eyes. "Come on, you two, break it up. It's getting dark."

It was as if Rion's words had some sort of magical power, because the moment they were out of her mouth she found herself suddenly surrounded in pitch blackness. The sun seemed to wink out, and she was falling…or at least it felt like she was falling, except that she never hit the ground. Rion screamed. Somewhere above her she heard Fox's voice yelling her name, and Jana's. And then from below her came Jana's answering shout. "Jana? Fox? Where are you?!!" she called out, her voice breaking in terror. "What's happening?" From out of the darkness she suddenly felt a hand grip her own. "Fox, is that you?"

"Don't be afraid," came the reply. It was a male voice, but it wasn't Fox, and Rion screamed again, trying to tear her hand away. The strange man would not let go. "Please, it's all right," the gentle voice insisted. "No harm will come to you."

"Who are you?" Rion cried, but she felt the foreign hand slip from her fingers. She was still falling, and she flailed her arms and legs wildly to no avail. "Who are you?!!!"

Suddenly she was not falling anymore. She could feel no ground beneath her feet; she was floating. A warm red light cut through the blackness, and from it stepped a graceful figure, dressed in red silk. Her brilliant fire-colored hair fell in long waves over her shoulders, and at the top was gathered into a double bun. She wore a strange, oriental sort of gold hair ornament; it was long, and curved like an S. From one end dangled four delicate gold chains, with small amber colored stones at each end. The gold sparkled in the strange red light, and the girl gazed at Rion with longing in her ruby colored eyes.

Rion took a deep breath. "You." It was the princess from her dreams, the one she'd seen every night for as long as she could remember. Rion laughed and flung out her arms. "This is a dream! Oh, thank heaven. It's just a dream." She paused to push her glasses up onto her nose. "Funny. I don't remember falling asleep." She shrugged it off. After all, she had been known to fall asleep in the middle of her writing. She was probably just so tired that she'd forgotten the rest of the walk home. Or maybe…maybe the whole walk home was a dream. Yes, that had to be it. She was still at the restaurant, and she'd fallen asleep. Jana or Fox would probably wake her up any time now. Satisfied with that conclusion, Rion turned to look at the girl again.

"Hey, you really scared me for a second there," she grinned. Rion didn't expect her to answer…the red-haired princess had never spoken to her. Rion tilted her head to the side. "So, what are you gonna show me this time?" she asked curiously. "More of those mountains of yours? Those were really pretty. Or how about that waterfall place with all the little fairy people? I've been wanting to go back there."

The princess pressed her lips together, and then took a step forward. "Tasukete, Verbadominare."

Rion's mouth fell open. "You can talk?" she asked in amazement. "You never talked to me before."

The princess took another step forward. "Tasukete, Verbadominare."

Rion shook her head. "I don't understand you. Sheesh…you'd think a figment of my imagination would at least speak my own language."

The girl reached out now and seized Rion's hand, her ruby eyes earnest. Again she repeated her words. "Tasukete, Verbadominare." This time, Rion felt a tingle, like a spark of flame, rush up from her hand where the princess was gripping it, and suddenly that spark burst into her brain, writing the words into her consciousness.

Help me, Wordmaster.

Rion gasped and snatched her hand away. "Wha…What?" she stammered out, shaking her wrist. She could still feel the tingle.

The girl suddenly smiled brilliantly and her eyes widened with excitement. "You hear me now?" she exclaimed, every word burning into Rion's mind as the first words had.

"Ouch!! Yes, yes, I hear you," Rion answered, putting her hands to her forehead as the blazing words made her head pound. "And it hurts! What did you do to me?"

The girl was apologetic. "I'm sorry, Wordmaster. But from such a great distance it is the only way I can awaken your powers."

"Who are you?" Rion demanded, still holding her throbbing temples.

"I am the Princess Minami Agnis," came the response. "You'll forgive my excitement…it's just that I haven't been able to speak with anyone for the last hundred years."

Rion scowled petulantly. "I guess my gift is coming back."

Minami frowned. "I'm sorry, I don't understand."

Rion slowly straightened. It still hurt to hear the girl's voice in her head, but the more she talked, the more bearable it became. "I'm a writer. I've been writing stories about you ever since I can remember. I even had a book published. But I haven't been able to think of anything new to write about in over a year. Maybe now I'm getting my imagination back."

The princess shook her head, still a bit confused. "I knew you were the one the moment I felt your birth," she replied. "Your dreams were the only place I could reach you…but you were so far away I could not speak with you." A light suddenly dawned on her face. "Ryu, " she breathed rapturously. "It's Ryu. He's found you, at last. Isn't it wonderful? Everything will be all right now."

"Okay, slow down. Who's Ryu?" Rion felt her pockets for her pen and notebook, but they weren't there. "Oh, great…and me with a horrible memory. Look, Princess, you gotta tell me this nice and slow. I want to be sure that I can remember everything. I can't afford to forget it now that I'm finally getting my inspiration back."

Minami tilted her head to the side. "My Words still cause you pain," she remarked. "I shall show you rather than tell you."

Rion nodded. "Okay. Go for it." This, at least, was something familiar. The mysterious redhead had been showing her parts of her fantastical world ever since Rion was a child. Minami turned and waved her hand, and the red light expanded into an enormous flat rectangle, which began to form pictures like a giant movie screen. Rion had always thought that the movie screen was so cool…it was like sitting in an IMAX theater. "Now all we need is a little popcorn," she muttered to herself.

Minami turned to her with a crease in her brow. "Popcorn?" she asked curiously.

Rion rolled her eyes and shrugged. "Never mind." Her headache had settled itself into a dull pulsing.

The princess nodded and turned back to the screen of light. Scenes of forests and oceans flashed by, all things that Rion had seen before. Finally, though, an image popped up which was entirely new. It was a throne room of some sort, and sitting on the throne was an image of Minami. "Cool," Rion mused. She watched the screen as a man with long white hair approached the throne.

"Princess, I'm only going to ask you this one last time. Marry me," the man said. Rion kept her eyes on the screen as the conversation unfolded. She didn't like the white-haired man very much, and almost cheered when Minami used her powers to throw him into the wall. She stared horrified as Khayyin used his powers to trap the princess in that funny dark glass sphere, and shook her head with sorrow when Ryu arrived to find his beloved imprisoned in the time globe. As Khayyin left the throne room, and the Princess fell to her knees inside the globe, Rion sighed sadly.

"That's great," she breathed. "Just wonderful. What a perfect new story! Minami, you're a lifesaver, thank you. I can make a whole new book out of this!"

The princess shook her head. "It doesn't end there."

Suddenly the scene shifted. There was billowing black smoke, raging fire, and sparks of color and streaming light like Rion had never seen before. "What's happening?" she asked, her fascination overriding the ache behind her eyes.

"The Wordmasters' War. When they found out what had happened to me, they rose up in arms to stop Khayyin." The princess' voice was impossibly sad, and when Rion looked over at her she found that the other girl had tears on her face. "But Khayyin had developed powers darker and more sinister than anything the Wordmasters had ever encountered. He used those powers to summon beings of evil, called the Tehman, who ripped Jiniarin apart with their violence and hate. The Tehman had the power to kill Wordmasters…and they did kill them. By the hundreds. In a few weeks, Jiniarin was nothing more than a scorched wasteland. Millions of innocent people were killed, and there were only a handful of Wordmasters left." Images of ransacked towns and burning houses filled the screen. Then Ryu's face appeared, smeared with soot, and behind him were five men in caped uniforms that had at one time been white. "Ryu led the remaining Wordmasters to find Caronieva, who was said to be the greatest Wordmaster of them all." A man's face appeared, surprisingly young. He had dark brown hair, but an entire front section of his bangs was stark white like a bolt of lightning. "Caronieva had isolated himself from the other Wordmasters when the war broke out. You see, he had a disease which he had contracted when one of his young apprentices miscast a spell. This disease allowed him to live for a hundred years without aging, and gave him a strange ability to travel between different dimensions of existence. But at the end of the hundred years, he would die. He could have come to my family for healing, but he chose not to, preferring to explore the new abilities that the disease gave him." Rion frowned, noticing dark blue vein-like marks that seemed to spread themselves over the young man's hands and arms.

"Okay, so he's sick. But what's he gonna do about Khayyin?" she demanded impatiently.

Minami kept her gaze on the screen. "Caronieva told the other Wordmasters that he had a spell of destruction, one that had the power to destroy Khayyin. But he did not have enough strength alone to cast the spell. All five of them would have to help him; it was a necrios spell."

"A death spell," Rion translated, to busy watching the screen to wonder how she happened to know what the word meant. The princess noticed, however, and nodded with an encouraging smile.

"Yes, a death spell. Because it was designed to take a life, it would take the lives of anyone who cast it as well. To stop Khayyin, they were willing to make that sacrifice." The Wordmasters joined hands in a circle and began to chant. The words sounded strange to Rion, and yet there was a part of her that felt that they were familiar, somehow…as though she ought to know them. The princess was watching her face closely, and nodded in satisfaction as the flashes of recognition swept across the writer's face. "Ryu and his soldiers held the Tehman at bay while the Wordmasters cast the spell. With all six of them combining the full strength of their powers, the spell was successful."

A dark vortex began to form in the middle of the circle, swirling and churning with energy that Rion could almost feel. A red beam shot from the center of the vortex, directly into the sky. And the Wordmasters kept on chanting. The screen split then, to show Khayyin in the throne room before the imprisoned Princess. He was bragging about something; Rion only caught a few words before the red light cut through the ceiling, streaking down to envelop him. He scarcely had time to cry out in surprise before his body was dissolved. Within seconds, Khayyin was gone.

Rion blinked in surprise. She'd expected something a little more dramatic. Well, no matter. She was a writer, after all. She could easily play that scene up a little more when it came time to write it. A swordfight to the death, between Ryu and Khayyin, climaxing in the heroic efforts of Caronieva and his team of Wordmasters to bring the evil renegade to his knees. Rion grinned to herself. Yeah, that was good.

Minami smiled also, no doubt thinking that Rion was celebrating Khayyin's demise. "Khayyin was destroyed, but with him went every last Wordmaster in Jiniarin. Caronieva himself could not survive the death spell, in spite of his disease. Ryu was afraid that without Wordmasters there would be no way to free me from the time globe. As Caronieva was dying, Ryu asked him how to break the time globe spell."

"There has to be a way," the Ryu on the screen demanded, kneeling down beside the fallen Wordmaster. "Please, you have to help me."

The young man closed his eyes with pain. "Only…only a Wordmaster could hope to break the time globe spell," he replied. "There are none left in Jiniarin."

"Then I'll find one somewhere else," Ryu insisted hotly. "Wordmaster, you must help me."

Caronieva took a shuddering breath. "There is only one way to travel between dimensions, General," he answered, and the blue-haired man's eyes fell to the Wordmaster's hands, netted with the ominous navy veins of his disease.

The general swallowed hard, but his voice was firm. "So be it. If I save her, she can heal me. If I fail, I am dead anyway." He held up his hand.

The dying Wordmaster looked for a moment at the young general's face, and then nodded slowly. "Very well." He held out his own hand, and the two men pressed their palms together. There was a sudden tensing in Ryu's muscles as the painful poison penetrated his skin…and it was done. Ryu now had a hundred years to find another Wordmaster. If he failed, he would die, and Minami would be trapped forever in the time globe.

From off to the right, another figure leaped in. This one had two-toned hair almost exactly like Caronieva's, only much wilder. "Wordmaster," this new person cried. "Wordmaster, give it to me too. I want to help."

Rion's eyes widened in surprise. That voice…she'd heard that voice before, hadn't she? After a second it came to her. The hand in the darkness. The voice telling her not to fear. It was the same. "Weirder and weirder," she muttered.

Caronieva was shaking his head weakly. "Oni, my apprentice. You are not strong enough, and far too young."

But the young man was adamant. "Please, Wordmaster. I must do something. When you die, I shall be the only person left in Jiniarin that knows anything of your art. Without the Agnis Princess' blessing I can never become a Wordmaster, and besides," here he flushed darkly. "I am responsible for your disease. It is only right that I should take it myself in punishment."

"It doesn't work that way, Oni. You know that." The Wordmaster's rich brown eyes were gentle, however, and after a moment he nodded. "Not in punishment, but in hope, will I give you what I can. Perhaps your knowledge, limited though it may be, shall grow over time; and perhaps you shall be able to help the one Ryu finds to use their abilities in saving the Agnis Princess." He held up his palm, his breathing noticeably weaker after that speech. "Take it… my apprentice…and good luck."

Without hesitation Oni pressed his own palm to the Wordmaster's and was immediately rewarded with an icy burst of pain. He gritted his teeth and rubbed his wrist as he pulled his hand away, but the gratitude in his voice was sincere. "Thank you, Wordmaster."

Caronieva's eyes fluttered, and he took a final, gasping breath. "General Ryu… take care…of my…apprentice," he managed. When the breath was gone, the Wordmaster did not take another one. His eyes closed for the last time, and he was dead. Very slowly, the screen faded to black, and then dissolved away.

Rion turned to the princess, her eyes shining. "Perfect! It's just perfect. Thank you soooo much…I can't wait to wake up and write all this down! Now let's see…how do you spell Caronieva…" The brunette pushed her glasses back onto her nose and began to twirl a strand of hair around one finger as she turned away.

"Wordmaster, wait."

Now that the movie screen thing was gone, Rion noticed the headache again, and she plugged her ears. "Ouch, that hurts." She glared up at the princess. "Do you have to talk so loud?" she complained.

"I'm sorry, Wordmaster, but--"

"Why do you keep calling me that?" Rion stared at her. "I'm not in this story. It's about you, and Ryu, and Caro…Crano…Crayola…whatever his name is. I think I'm gonna change it anyway…too hard to pronounce and the readers won't like it."

Minami shook her head, the long dangling gold chains of her hair ornament clinking musically. "I don't think you understand. YOU are the Wordmaster…the one Ryu has been searching for. You're the one who can save me."

Rion's mouth dropped open. "What?" She started to laugh then. "No, I don't think so. No way I'm putting myself in this story…no self-respecting author does that. Try again. Maybe…I don't know…maybe Fox could be the Wordmaster guy. Yeah. Writers base characters on their family members all the time. If Fox is the Wordmaster, I can…"

"This is not a story, Wordmaster."

Rion blinked in surprise. "What?"

"This is not a story. I am real. Ryu is real. Jiniarin is real. And the danger that we all face is very real. We need your help…the hundred years are nearly spent and there is no more time. You have the power to save us all."

Rion blinked again. "Yeah. Sure. Whatever. Look, can I wake up now, please? I need to start writing this down before I forget it all."

The princess tilted her head. "You don't believe me. But you will." The red light appeared again, directly behind her, and she backed away. Slowly the light swallowed her up; and then she was gone.

**********

"Rion. Rion, wake up."

She heard Fox's voice from somewhere above her. "About time," she grumbled sleepily, forcing her eyes open. "My notebook…where's my notebook?"

"Rion, get up." Fox seized her shoulder and pulled her into a sitting position. She shook her head slightly and blinked her eyes.

"How come it's so dark in here?" she demanded, squinting. It took her a few moments to realize that she was lying on some sort of crude cot. Fox was sitting on the edge, with Jana standing behind his shoulder, and both of them looked very worried. "Hey, what's going on?" They appeared to be in a small room, and the only light came from an old-fashioned oil lamp resting on a small table. The walls were simple rough-hewn planks, and the floor was nothing but hard-packed dirt. Rion looked up to see that the cot she was sitting on was actually the lower bunk of a bunkbed; it had been fashioned out of thick tree branches that still bore their knots, and the mattresses were long white linen bags that had been stuffed with straw. Now that Rion was awake, the straw was poking her uncomfortably. She swung her legs over the side and put her feet down on the packed earth. "Where are we?" she questioned, staring around them in consternation.

Jana shook her head. "I don't know. One minute we were falling and everything was black; then Fox and I woke up here. You were out cold…I thought you might have fainted or something."

Rion put a hand to her forehead, which was still aching. "Well, I gotta find my notebook. Remember my red haired princess? I saw her again, and she gave me a whole new story that you're not gonna believe. I have to write it down before I forget."

As Rion stood up, the door opened, and her mouth dropped open as two men stepped into the room. "Ryu?" she gasped in shock. The blue-haired general met her eyes with surprise.

"How do you know my name, little one?"

Rion sat back down on the mattress, hard. The two men were gazing at her curiously. She recognized the younger one also, with his wild bi-colored hair. The writer shook her head in shock. "The princess told me," she replied numbly, without thinking.

Ryu's eyes widened instantly. "Minami?!! You've seen Minami? He crossed the room in one quick motion, looking anxiously down at the pale girl. Rion was still shaking her head in a daze.

"I'm not awake yet," she realized. "This is still part of the dream."

Fox and Jana frowned at one another. "Rion," Jana said uncertainly. "It can't be a dream. How could all three of us be dreaming the same thing?"

Rion looked up at her friend. "We're not. You guys are just a part of my whole weird subconscious, I guess."

Fox raised a fiery eyebrow. "Well, would you listen to that. My little sis thinks I'm a figment of her imagination."

Rion rolled her eyes. "And even in my imagination you're still obnoxious."

Jana turned to Ryu and his companion. "Look, I want to know what's going on," she demanded coldly. "Who are you people, and what do you want with us?"

Ryu did not take his eyes off Rion as he answered. "It's not you we want, my lady. It's this one." He nodded his head at the dark haired writer. "Oni believes she is the one we seek, the one with the power to save our world. And if she has seen Minami…" he turned to meet his companion's eyes, "then Oni may just be right. Your small friend here may very well be our Wordmaster."

Jana looked down at Rion, who was still shaking her head in confusion, and her eyes narrowed. "Listen, punk, I don't know who you think you are, and frankly I don't care. But if you lay one hand on her I'll rearrange your face."

Ryu looked up at Jana for the first time in surprise. He caught the flash and fire in her eyes, that look which he recognized and had come to respect in all his soldiers. He shook his head slightly in amazement. "A female warrior. Wonders never cease."

Oni nodded at Rion. "And a female Wordmaster. Again, most unexpected."

Jana growled low in her throat, but both of the strange men were ignoring her now, their attention focused on Rion. The younger girl pushed her glasses up on her nose, and stared at her brother with a smirk. "Well, at least we know my subconscious doesn't think of you as a dainty girl," she grinned. "I don't know why you popped up in my dream like this but I sure wish you'd wake me up soon. I'm already starting to forget." She stood up, looking up at the thatched roof as though she could somehow find the real Fox floating in the sky beyond it. "Fox? Fox, come on, wake me up."

"Rion, I'm right here," Fox protested. "You've got to listen to me…this isn't a dream. I know it isn't because I'm HERE."

"And so am I," Jana put in darkly, glaring at the two men. "Though I can't say I have a better explanation for all of this."

Rion twirled her hair thoughtfully, not paying any attention to them. "Okay, so I'm not awake yet. I guess I don't have any choice…I'm supposed to be in this story after all. Okay…all right…I'm a writer. I can work with this. I'll just see where the story goes, and when I write it I can make up a character for my part." She nodded, pacing in a small circle. "Yeah, that'll work."

"Please, little one." Ryu stepped forward. "Please, if you've seen Minami you must tell me." He put out a hand to touch Rion's shoulder, but with a movement swift as lightning Jana grabbed his wrist. Before Ryu had time to blink the athletic girl had flipped him over her shoulder so that he was lying on his back on the dirt floor, blinking in startled surprise at the roof above him.

Jana bared her teeth. "Nobody lays a hand on my friends. Got it?"

Oni gaped at her. He'd never seen anyone get the best of the princess' general like that. "General Ryu…are you all right?" He turned to look at Jana with amazement. "No one has dared touch the general before."

Ryu made a motion to rise, but the look in Jana's eyes warned him that might not be wise. "The general better not dare touch my friends, or he'll be spending a lot of time down there."

Fox grinned proudly and put an arm around her waist, planting a kiss on her cheek. "That's my girl," he declared.

Rion put an arm out to wave Jana away. "It's okay, Jana. He's not gonna hurt us."

Jana narrowed her eyes. "How do you know?"

The writer grinned, her dark hair brushing her cheek. "Hey, it's my dream, remember? And he's one of the good guys. Trust me on this one."

Jana was not convinced. Rion still thought this was a dream, but she knew better. She was just as much present as Rion was, and she didn't like this, whatever it was. The whole thing was just too bizarre, as if someone had sucked them into the middle of one of Rion's stories all of a sudden. Jana found herself wondering if this was some elaborate scheme of one of Rion's fans, trying to act out her novel in a crazy kind of fantasy. She did back off, however, just slightly, and Ryu rose to his feet slowly so as to reassure her that he meant them no harm.

Ryu watched the girl warily. She was stronger than she looked, and had taken him by surprise. He was still certain that he outweighed her in terms of strength and military training, but he would not underestimate her again. His sapphire eyes carefully moved back to Rion, but this time he made no effort to touch her. "I apologize for my impudence, little one," he stated with a degree of respect that he hoped would help appease the warrior girl's fire. "But you spoke of the Agnis Princess, did you not?"

Rion cocked her head and looked at him. She could see why Minami liked him; Ryu was extremely handsome, with smooth youthful features and brilliant eyes. Inwardly she congratulated herself on her character creation. He was the perfect hero, long blue ponytail and all. "Yeah, that was her name," Rion replied with a nod. "Princess Minami Agnis."

The general tried to contain his excitement. "Can you tell me what she looked like?" he asked.

"Red hair," Rion said immediately. "She had lots of bright red hair, just like Fox. And she wears this red silk oriental dress, all fancy and embroidered and everything. She's got this weird thingamajig in her hair, too…gold with long dangly things."

Ryu did not understand all the words that the writer was using, but he caught enough to recognize the description of his beloved. His breath caught in his throat. "That's her," he whispered, almost to himself. "Please tell me, is she well?"

Rion shrugged. "Well enough, I guess. I mean, she said she was trapped in a globe thingy and hadn't talked to anyone in a hundred years. She did this strange thing to me…I couldn't understand what she was saying until she touched my hand. It was like little hot brands burning the words on my brain." Rion rubbed her forehead ruefully at the memory. "She kept calling me 'Wordmaster' and telling me I needed to save her. And she showed me a whole bunch of stuff for my story." Rion nodded in Oni's direction. "You were in it, and some guy with hair like yours called Caro…Crono…"

"Caronieva?" Oni interjected, eyes wide.

"Yeah, that's him. But like I told her, I'm gonna change that name to something easier. Readers don't like names they can't remember."

A giant grin spread over Ryu's face. "If Minami says you are the Wordmaster, than it must be true!" He turned to clap Oni on the shoulder. "We did it…we found her, my friend. And not a moment too soon."

Oni was still gazing at Rion with awe. "So you actually spoke to the Agnis Princess…and she touched you with the fire of awakening. Do you know what that means?"

Rion's brows went up. "Not a clue."

The apprentice was almost bouncing in his excitement. "It means she's made you a Wordmaster! She's awakened your powers and given you her blessing. And now you truly have the ability to save us all."

"I'm confused," Fox interrupted loudly. "What exactly is a Wordmaster, and what does all this have to do with my little sister?"

Ryu nodded. "I know you must have many questions. I will do my best to answer them for you, but I must do it as we travel. We have a long stretch of ground to cover if we are to reach Ketsukan in time."

Jana frowned. "Ketsukan?"

"The capital city of Jiniarin," Rion explained, and everyone in the room looked at her.

"Jiniarin?" Fox repeated.

"Our world," Ryu supplied. "I promise, I will explain everything, but we must be on our way first."

"Not on your life," Jana responded firmly. "We aren't going anywhere with you until you tell us exactly what's going on. What makes you think Rion wants to help you, anyway?" She sat down on the edge of the bunk and stared at Ryu expectantly.

The general sighed. He was half tempted to tie and gag the warrior girl and leave her here with the Wordmaster's brother. It would be much easier and faster if he and Oni only had to take one person with them. But his soldier's honor would not allow him to do such a thing; the two foreigners would surely die if they were left alone, and while he was a soldier, he was not a murderer. "Very well," he conceded reluctantly. "But be warned, it is a long story…"

**********

Jana hugged her knees to her chest, her soft golden brown hair falling down around her face and glinting in the lamplight. "Okay, so let me get this straight. You people think Rion is this Wordmaster person who can break the time globe spell, right? And if she doesn't break it in three weeks, you two are gonna die of this freaky disease that you've had for a hundred years. One question…if you've had a hundred years, why did it take you so long to find Rion? I mean, surely she can't be the only person in existence who has these Wordmaster abilities."

Ryu nodded, his eyes dark. "It is a fair question, and the answer is unpleasant, I'm afraid. Oni and I have been searching the dimensions of existence for nearly a century. We have found many people with Wordmaster abilities, and brought them to Ketsukan. However, the Words of the time globe are more than powerful; they are laced with death. The other Wordmasters who attempted lost their lives."

Fox's eyes narrowed. "They died?" At Ryu's nod, he shook his head. "No way am I gonna let my little sister follow you for miles and miles just to end up getting killed by this time globe of yours," he declared adamantly.

"But she's different from the others," Oni protested quickly. "The Agnis Princess herself appeared to her, made her a Jiniarin Wordmaster. She has the power to break Khayyin's spell…she may be the only one who can."

Jana and Fox remained unmoved, but Rion giggled lightly. "Hey guys, come on, don't look so serious. Since it doesn't look like I'll be waking up any time soon, we might as well go along with all this to see what happens. Think of how great it will be for my new book."

Jana turned to her friend. "Rion, this isn't a dream. It's really weird, but it's not a dream. I'm here, Fox is here, you're here, and these clowns are asking you to travel to their capital city and use magic to break a spell that's already killed like a hundred other people. I'm sorry, but I'm not buying it."

Rion rolled her eyes. "Nothing is going to happen to me, or to you, or to anybody, okay? Come on." A note of pleading entered her voice. "Please? Jana, don't you know how long it's been since I've been inspired like this? You have to let me go…you have to."

Fox and Jana exchanged glances. It was still obvious to them that Rion did not understand the reality of the situation. But looking at the delicate writer in the lamplight, they could see a shine in her eyes, behind those silver glasses, that they had not seen in almost a year. The hope that was written all over her face was too compelling to deny, and finally the two of them nodded slowly.

"Okay, little sis," Fox agreed hesitantly. "We'll go with them."

"But that doesn't mean we'll let you kill yourself for this globe thing," Jana was quick to add. She turned to the two Jiniarin men. "If Rion wants to go, we'll let her go with you. But you're not forcing her to die trying to use this magic stuff of hers, okay?"

"Believe me," Ryu replied, meeting the warrior girl's eyes. "I have no desire to see her die." The sadness in his voice softened Jana's defensive nature a bit.

Oni shook his head. "The others would not give up, even when I told them they should. By the time they'd reached Ketsukan it was almost as if they wanted to free the Princess more than Ryu or I…we never forced them to give their lives. In fact we couldn't stop them."

Fox grinned. "We won't have that problem, will we, Jana?"

Jana chuckled. "Got that right. If you say time to stop," she turned to Oni, "then Rion is stopping. Whether she wants to or not."

Ryu breathed a sigh of relief. "Then you will come with us," he stated, though it was more of a question. All three teens nodded, and the blue-haired general smiled. "Good. Let's go." He rose to his feet as though ready to march out the door that very second.

Oni looked at his leader skeptically. "General…it's very late. We can't travel in the middle of the night with the Tehman wandering around."

Ryu made a face, but he nodded. "Oni's right. We'll spend the night here, and leave first thing in the morning." He looked around the room. "There are extra blankets in that cabinet," he said, nodding towards a rough-hewn wooden chest in one corner. "And Oni will bring you bread before you sleep."

"General." Jana tilted her head. "How far is it to Ketsukan?"

"If the Tehman do not bother us…it will take us a week to get there." The general turned to go, and as an afterthought, turned back. "Pleasant dreaming." Ryu and Oni left the room.

Jana and Fox met one another's eyes, and then turned to look at Rion.

"What?" the writer asked, looking from one to the other.

Shaking their heads, the two went to the cabinets that Ryu had indicated to pull out blankets. Jana and Rion took the bunk beds, while Fox found another small cot at the opposite end of the room. By the time that Oni arrived with the promised bread, the three were already fast asleep. The young apprentice gazed around the room at the sleeping teenagers, and let his eyes rest on Rion. She had removed her glasses, and in the soft lamplight her black hair contrasted sharply against the paleness of her cheeks. Such a pretty girl. She was not the first female Wordmaster that he and Ryu had brought back with them, but she was the first to be so young and delicate. Even in sleep Oni could feel her Words emanating from her in long, peaceful waves. He wondered what it would be like to train her, with that kind of natural power. Quietly he set the tray of bread down on the little table by the door, and blew out the lamp.

**********

Fox was the first to wake, as the first gray fingers of dawn began to penetrate the dark room. At first he was confused. The straw mattress beneath him was itching uncomfortably, as was the rough woolen blanket on top of him. It took him several minutes to remember the events of the preceding night, and as he swung his feet out of bed, striking the firm ground, he was more assured than ever that this was no dream. This place, as strange as it was, was definitely real. Ryu had said something about traveling between dimensions; it sounded more like a bad episode of Star Trek than anything else.

His eyes fell on the tray of bread that Oni had left for them the night before, and his stomach growled. He'd missed his late night snack, and was hungry. Leaving the blanket in a heap on the bed, he made his way over to the tray, where he snatched up a piece of the bread and chewed with relish. It was a little dry from having sat out all night, and had a funny sort of foreign flavor, but Fox was not terribly picky about his food. It was edible, and that was all that mattered. He turned around to look at his sleeping girlfriend. She'd taken the top bunk, probably so that she could have a better vantage point if danger were to come walking in the door. He had to grin to himself, remembering the way Jana had flipped the general the night before without even breaking a sweat.

Jana was probably one of the most competitive people he knew. She was into every sport imaginable, from the standard basketball, football and track to more uncommon ones like boxing and karate. And she excelled in every one of them. She was built like a runner, long and lean, but in many ways had the muscular strength and definition of a weightlifter. Fox was just thankful that his interests were more scientific and mathematical; he'd hate to think how many times he'd have to endure being beaten up by his own girlfriend if he, too, were an athlete.

But she wasn't just strong. Jana was also extremely pretty, with a perfectly smooth, tanned complexion and rich golden-brown hair. She had an athletic grace and dignity, and an extremely warm and friendly demeanor. No one could light up a room with a smile like Jana could. She and Rion had been best friends for ages, ever since they were kids, and the three of them had virtually grown up together. Fox could remember, even, the first time that he realized just how much he was attracted to Jana; it was shortly after Rion's book had been published, and their whole world had been turned upside-down. Reporters and news crews were knocking at their door at all hours, and Rion was whisked from one interview to the next, for photo shoots and talk shows and book signings and all that other stuff that went along with being a child prodigy. That's what they'd all called her…a prodigy. Through it all, Fox had watched his sister go from being excited and energized with her success to being tired and worn from all the constant eyes on her. And at every moment, Jana had been there, by Rion's side, holding the reporters back and giving her the support and genuine friendship that she needed so much. Fox had never seen Jana look so beautiful as she did in those moments protecting his sister.

His eyes moved down to look at his little sister, still asleep on the bottom bunk. Rion had always been the dreamer, with a melancholic, poetic attitude towards life in general. She was Jana's opposite in almost every way…pessimistic, fragile and very emotional. Still, she had one of the sweetest and gentlest dispositions he'd ever seen. Rion was like a flower, opening up when it was warm and sunny and closing herself off when night came. For the last year or so, as pressure mounted for her to follow up on her first book, she'd been closing up more and more. Fox had been really worried about her. Last night was the first time in a long time that he'd seen her look so alive.

Rion had removed her glasses before she went to sleep; Fox looked for them and found them on the ground by her bed. But…that was funny. The glasses were resting on top of a notebook, one of those black spiral kind that Rion always had with her. There was even a ball-point pen (with black ink, which was the only kind Rion would use) tucked into the metal spiral binding. Fox frowned. That hadn't been there last night, had it? He distinctly remembered Rion complaining about NOT having a notebook, and wondered where on earth it could have come from.

The door opened from behind him, and a wild thatch of two-toned hair popped itself into the room. "General Ryu wanted me to bring you some water," Oni said, handing Fox a large clay basin and full pitcher. Fox took the things a little uncertainly. "He thought the girls might want it. We're to leave in an hour."

Fox nodded. "I'll get them up."

An hour later, the two girls were ready. Ryu handed out small knapsacks, each one containing a packet of bread and cheese, a roll of cloth strips, a small piece of flint, a leather skin filled with water, a coil of rope and a little knife. In addition to this each of them was to carry a tightly rolled set of blankets. Rion almost complained…the blankets were heavy and when her skin was full, the water weighed down the knapsack considerably. She also had the mysterious notebook and pen with her. Rion had no idea where they had come from; the night before had been the first night she could remember when the red-haired princess hadn't appeared to her at all. She remembered dreaming about writing her new story, trying desperately to remember everything she'd learned so far, and when she woke up…a notebook and pen were lying by her bed. Rion didn't concern herself with it too much, though. This was, after all, her dream; and so naturally some things could just appear or disappear or change, simply because she willed them to. Still, in spite of the added weight, she bit her lip and did not protest. There were two reasons for this; one, because Jana wasn't complaining in the slightest, and two, because she wanted to get the full experience, misery and all, for the sake of her new story, especially now that she had a notebook to journal it in.

Ryu explained to them the route they would take, pointing it out on a crudely hand-drawn map which was frayed from much use and yellowing with age. Rion recognized many of the landforms he indicated, like the mountain pass and the river, from the princess' earlier visual tours. To her disappointment, the trip would not take them past the waterfall with the fairy creatures that she'd liked so much, though Ryu seemed startled when she asked about it. He told her that the fairies had disappeared since the appearance of the Tehman over a hundred years ago. No one was sure whether they had gone into hiding or had all been killed off, but no one had seen a fairy in Jiniarin for almost a century.

Rion was also unhappy to learn that they would all be traveling by foot. There were no horses left in Jiniarin either, also thanks to the Tehman. She had never been very good at long-term exercise, and she wasn't looking forward to the blisters and sore muscles that she was sure went along with such a quest. Still, she could use the discomfort in her story, and so it wouldn't be a total loss. Besides, she knew that Fox would tease her mercilessly for being a wimp if she uttered a sound of protest.

As they left the small cottage where they'd spent the night, Jana asked the general why it was, if he could travel between dimensions, that he had not simply transported them all directly to Ketsukan instead of so many miles away from it.

Oni was the one who answered first. "This was Wordmaster Caronieva's dwelling. He and I used to work together here, and it was here that he did all his dimensional traveling. Since General Ryu and I are not Wordmasters, we have to come here, where the power of Caronieva's Words is still strong."

Rion nodded. "No wonder we have so far to go, then," she observed. "The princess told me that Caronieva was a recluse."

"Yes," Ryu affirmed. "When he was first infected with the disease, he isolated himself from the rest of Jiniarin in order to better explore the new abilities that the disease lent to him. After the Wordmaster Wars broke out, he cast a spell of protection over this place so that the Tehman could not find it. Here we are safe…but from this point forward we shall be vulnerable to attack. We will travel in daylight, when the Tehman are usually dormant. At night we will take turns at watch. With any luck, we'll make it to Ketsukan without having any unpleasant encounters."

"Do you think they'll leave us alone?" Fox asked, looking uneasily down at the broadsword buckled to the general's waist.

"They should. A small party of travelers is usually not much use to the Tehman. They prefer villages and pasturelands where the opportunity for plunder is greater." Ryu noticed the target of Fox's attention, and patted the hilt of his sword. "Have no fear. The Tehman are strong and swift, but not invincible."

Jana stopped short for a moment. "You wouldn't happen to have a good sturdy staff around here, would you?"

Ryu cocked his head. "You need assistance in walking?" he asked dubiously.

"Of course not." Her brown eyes narrowed. "It just so happens I have black belts in several forms of martial arts, and combat with a staff is one of my specialties. In case we run into any trouble, I have no intention of sitting back and letting you have all the fun."

"Lady Jana, a battle is never fun." The general's sapphire eyes were serious.

"Maybe not for you. Look, is there a staff around here or what?"

Oni shook his head. "Caronieva had no need of weapons or staves," he answered.

Jana rolled her eyes. "I'll leave the magicky stuff to you and Rion," she declared. "Me, I'm gonna find myself a tree first thing. Something with nice strong branches."

The first few hours passed uneventfully, as Rion peppered Ryu and Oni with questions about their world, the princess, and the Wordmasters' War. Secretly she hoped that they WOULD come across a Tehman…a little one, anyway. She wanted to be able to describe them first hand. At first she tried taking notes as they walked, but the general kept up such a brisk pace that she found it impossible to write and walk at the same time. As the morning wore on, Rion got quieter and quieter, as more of her attention was needed in order to keep up with the blue-haired soldier and the rest of their group. She kept hoping that Ryu would call a break in order to rest, but it seemed like the higher the sun rose, the faster he wanted them to walk. It was, fortunately, a mild and breezy day, which made the walk much more pleasant than it could have been. Rion was thankful for that much, at least. But her feet were beginning to ache, and her back and legs quickly became sore. Fox, who was on the school basketball team, wasn't bothered by the quick pace, and Jana didn't seem to think it was quick enough. She kept darting ahead to look at something, and it seemed to Rion that she was inspecting every single tree within eyeshot. Rion found herself envying her friend's athletic stamina.

They must have made a very odd picture, three teenagers in blue jeans and sweatshirts traveling with two men who looked like they'd stepped out of the pages of Ivanhoe. Despite the warmth of the sun, both Ryu and Oni were wearing long cloaks. Ryu had on a white, lightweight shirt, loose black trousers and tall leather boots that came almost to his knees. Over the shirt he wore a gray military jacket of some kind, that was much faded and battered. A formidable-looking sword was strapped to his waist, and in addition to his knapsack he had a quiver of arrows and a longbow slung over one shoulder. Oni, on the other hand, wore a strange sort of green uniform. It was double breasted with a high collar and golden buttons along one shoulder; and he carried no weapons. Rion recognized the uniform from the princess' revelations; it was exactly the same sort as Caronieva had worn. Actually, come to think of it, Caronieva's uniform had been different from the other Wordmasters'; their uniforms had all been white. She made a mental note to ask Oni about this as soon as she'd had the chance to catch her breath.

It seemed like they would never stop to rest. Rion's feet ached, and her muscles trembled from so much unaccustomed exercise. She held a mental argument with herself at each step, half of her wanting to plead for a break, and the other half scolding herself for her weakness. But at last Ryu called a brief halt to eat. Rion sat down gratefully on a nearby boulder, removing her knapsack and crossing her weary legs. Truth be told, she wanted to lay down right then and there for a good long nap; but the general said they had fifteen minutes and no more. She was too tired to be hungry, so she sat and watched numbly as her brother and Jana pulled out their food packets, and chatted happily away. Oni was sent to fetch more water from a stream that was apparently somewhere nearby, and Ryu drained the last of his waterskin and pulled his own food packet out.

She sat for almost ten minutes in perfect silence, just watching the rest of them and trying not to feel the dull throbbing in her feet and back. Finally, Ryu looked up and noticed that she was not eating. He frowned. "Wordmaster, you must take nourishment," he declared. "We have a long way to go yet and you will not make it if you do not eat."

Fox also looked up from his inmate conversation with his girlfriend at Ryu's remark, and when he saw how pale and lethargic Rion was, his eyes widened. "Rion…" He turned to Ryu. "Something's wrong with her. She only gets quiet like that when she's sick."

Immediately Jana was at Rion's side, and Fox was pressing his hand to her forehead to test her temperature. Rion laughed, albeit weakly, and tried to wave them away. "I'm okay, guys, really. I'm just a little tired from all that walking."

Jana's eyes filled with concern. "You're almost ready to pass out, Rion. I'd call that more than a little tired. Why didn't you say anything?"

"I just…I didn't want to slow anybody down, that's all."

"You're the reason we're making this journey," Ryu responded. "We must ensure your safety and health at all times; you will not be able to break the spell if you are sick and tired." He rummaged around in his knapsack until he found a small bottle. "Here, drink some of this," he ordered. "It will help."

Fox's head came up quickly. "What is it?" he wanted to know.

"It is the extract of a certain flower we call Ipros, which grows in the sand of the riverbanks. It soothes pain."

Fox took the bottle from Ryu, uncorked it, and sniffed at it. Then he put a tiny amount on his little finger and tasted it, and grinned. "What do ya know," he marveled. "It's liquid aspirin." He turned to his sister. "Here, Rion, take a swallow. You'll be feeling better in no time."

Rion did as he commanded, making a face at the bitter taste. Fox corked the bottle and handed it back to Ryu, and at that moment Oni arrived with the filled waterskins.

"Oni, can you help her?" Ryu asked as the apprentice came to them.

The young man kneeled, the white thatch of his hair falling into his eyes. He could see that Rion had wearied herself, and thought for a moment before nodding. "I think so," he answered. Rion watched him curiously as he took her hand into his own, covering her wrist with his other palm. He closed his eyes and concentrated. "Navitas prognatus oriundus tedium," he chanted softly, and then repeated the phrase.

Rion gasped as the words burned themselves into her brain, in the same fiery letters as the Princess' had. Energy born from weariness. She felt that fire spread from her head, down through her arms and chest and lungs and stomach and legs until it reached the balls of her feet, and as Oni continued to chant, wave after wave of burning power flowed through her. At first it was painful, but then, after a few moments, the pain was replaced with a coursing strength and energy like she had never felt before, and she found herself whispering the phrase along with Oni, trying to hold on to that feeling. "Navitas prognatus oriundus tedium."

Oni's eyes widened with surprise. As he had begun the Words his hand had glowed with energy which had flowed into Rion . But the moment she repeated the Words with him, the energy had suddenly originated within HER, flowing outward and into him. He pulled his hand away with surprise as a burst of strength shot from Rion's hand into his own, and even after he'd broken the contact his skin still tingled. He suddenly found that he himself felt reenergized in a very potent way, and he gazed at Rion with awe.

"What is it, my friend?" Ryu asked as Oni gasped and removed his hand.

Oni shook his head. "She…she gave it back to me. The energy. She just handed it back."

"Is she all right?" Jana wanted to know, looking anxiously into her friend's face. After a moment the dark eyelashes fluttered, and then Rion's eyes popped open.

"Oh, wow," the writer blurted, sitting up and looking around her. "Oh, wow." She grinned at Oni. "I don't know what you did to me, but I feel like I could walk a thousand miles now without breaking a sweat." Rion stood up and twirled around in a circle. "This is so cool!" Suddenly she stopped. "Where's my notebook? I gotta write this down. And…" she paused for a moment to feel a shallow weight in her stomach. "I'm hungry." She dove for her knapsack, pulling out both her food packet and her notebook, and in about three seconds she was busily scribbling away with one hand while holding a piece of bread with the other and chewing as fast as she could.

The rest of the party exchanged glances, and all of them turned to look at Oni. He blushed. "Don't look at me," he defended himself, shaking his head. "I was only able to give her a small amount of energy. When she said the words herself, she threw everything I'd given her, and then some, back at me." He rubbed his wrist. "I'm feeling pretty energetic myself, at the moment. I haven't seen power like that from a beginner, ever. She's got the same amount of raw ability as Caronieva had…perhaps even more. No wonder she's the Wordmaster that the Agnis Princess chose."

Now they all turned to look at Rion, who was too busy scribbling and chewing to notice. She was shaking her head as she wrote. "This has got to be the coolest dream EVER," Fox heard her mumble through a mouthful of crumbs. "I can't wait to see what happens next!"

The group got on its way again, much to Rion's delight. Now that she had her strength back, she was torn between running ahead with Jana to look at things and running back to fire more questions at the general and Wordmaster apprentice. She was particularly interested in learning more about the abilities of a Wordmaster, now that she had seen what they could do. But Oni shook his head, and told her that he would explain the art of a Wordmaster later that evening in camp, where it would be quieter and easier for her to focus. Rion frowned petulantly, but her impatience didn't last long because she caught sight of a meadow a little way up the path. Grabbing Jana's hand, the two girls darted off to examine the clumps of orange and purple flowers that carpeted the rich green grass.

With Rion in such high spirits, it seemed like only a few brief hours before Ryu called them to a halt. The path had led them to the base of the mountain pass. They were only a mile or so away from the pass, making their way through the last thickly wooded forest until they faced the stony cliffs. Ryu preferred to make camp in the forest rather than out in the open; here it would be safe for them to build a fire, as the Tehman would be less likely to see the light. Inwardly, Ryu was pleased. They had covered almost twice as much ground as they had before their lunch stop, primarily due to Rion's enthusiasm. Now, it was Fox and Jana who were beginning to look a little worn.

Ryu built a fire, and then went off into the forest, longbow in hand. Jana, too, wandered into the trees, and thirty minutes later returned with a tall, sturdy branch of ash. There was a big grin on her face as she sat down and used the small knife from her knapsack to begin stripping the bark away. Fox was out scouting for more plants and berries that might have medicinal or nutritional properties. The flower whose extract had made the liquid aspirin intrigued him, and he found himself wondering if there might not be other vegetation in the area with similar useful purposes.

Rion settled herself by the fire and looked expectantly at Oni. The young man nodded, and took a seat beside her. Clearing his throat and gazing into the fire, he began.

"Since the first dawn in Jiniarin, Words have been the most powerful resource we possess. Many say that it was the power of Words which brought Jiniarin into existence in the first place. For as long as anyone can remember, the power of Words has focused itself within the Agnis family, being passed down from generation to generation through the female line. Because of this, our Agnis women are carefully protected, guarded and sought after. They have the ability to use Words without being made Wordmasters. I suppose one could say that the Agnis queens and princesses are the highest and most potent Wordmasters of all."

Rion nodded. Oni's voice was clear and strong, and had a pleasant tone; and the more he talked, the more she liked hearing it.

"The Agnis women have the ability to grant Wordmaster powers to others. But they only confer the title, rank and power on those who have spent years in training."

"Like you?" Rion asked.

Oni blushed. "It was my hope that one day I would become a Wordmaster," he responded, embarrassment coloring his tone. "But I'm afraid I wasn't a very good apprentice." He sighed. "Caronieva gave me the responsibility of tending to some of the minor Word-potions; they were like medicinal liquids and salves made more effective by the infusing of simple Word spells. But I was not content to perform such menial tasks. I had convinced myself that my abilities were great enough that I could do much more important things; and I began to experiment with the Word spells I was supposed to cast." The handsome face filled with guilt. "I was proud and ignorant, and my Wordmaster paid the price. Caronieva returned to the cottage one day to find it filled with an evil red smoke. I had made a mistake, tried to command control over elements of the potion with the wrong Words. The smoke had robbed me of my own Words, indeed of my very breath, so that I was unconscious on the floor. Caronieva used his own power to reverse the Word-spell, but it was like a virus, sapping all his Words away as he used them. When he opened himself to the red smoke, it poisoned him, and he contracted a disease that…"

"Let him live for a hundred years and travel between dimensions," Rion supplied for him, and Oni nodded.

"Yes. I thought he would be angry with me, and I was prepared to pack my things and leave his service in shame. But he demanded that I remain with him, saying that I could not atone for my mistakes if I was no longer his apprentice. So I stayed. I begged him to see the Agnis Princess and receive her healing, but he refused, preferring to explore the new abilities that the disease had opened up to him. It was his thought that he could enjoy these abilities for at least ninety-nine years, and ask for healing when his time was nearly up. Unfortunately, we had not counted on Khayyin's betrayal."

"And when the Wordmaster's War broke out, you retreated to the mountains?"

Oni inclined his head in affirmation. "Caronieva despised war. He tried to reason with the other Wordmasters, to tell them that they could defeat Khayyin without war if they would only give him time to find the right Words. But they were impatient, and did not wish to wait. They labeled Caronieva an outcast, and ignored his words of advice. Caronieva and I both donned the green uniforms of Wordmaster outcasts, and he led us into the mountains, far away from the blood and death. He never gave up on his hope to find a spell that would destroy Khayyin, however; and after the war had raged for nearly three years, he finally found one. A death spell, but it would work. And it was not a moment too soon, for it seems that almost that very day Ryu brought the last of the living Wordmasters to Caronieva, pleading for help. Caronieva helped them, and Khayyin was no more."

Rion tilted her head to the side. "Oni, what are Words, exactly? Why are they so powerful?"

Oni smiled, and waved one hand. "Everything that you see, everything that you know, every thing and idea and action that exists has a true name; a name which captures the very essence of that thing, which defines it and contains its full potential. Half of being a Wordmaster is knowing the true names of things."

Rion nodded. "And the other half?"

"The other half is not so easy to explain. A Wordmaster must be able to see beyond the surface of a thing, or an idea. It is not enough to capture it into a Word; it must be understood, comprehended for its true nature. In essence all things are merely ideas; all ideas are merely actions, and all actions are merely things. They are all the same, and yet each is unique. Once you understand the nature of a thing, you can use its Word to command it, and it will do anything you ask of it. But if you do not understand, you will be unable to control it properly, and unpleasant things may happen."

Rion tilted her head, gazing into the fire and chewing on her lower lip thoughtfully. "Show me. Please?"

"Very well." Oni looked at the flickering flames before them. "For example, the Word for fire is ignis."

As he said the word, Rion saw it burnt into her mind in flaming letters: Fire. She winced at the sudden pain, but nodded to show that she understood.

Oni gazed intensely into the red-gold flames, and put one hand out. "Ignis relucesca!" he called out, and Rion saw the words as he said them. It was a simple command. Fire, grow brighter. Rion watched in fascination as suddenly the fire swelled in front of them, shooting a shower of sparks into the sky.

Rion frowned slightly. Was that supposed to happen? She had been sure he had ordered the fire to grow brighter, not to let off sparks. But Oni did not seem to notice. "You try," he said to her.

Rion took a breath, and hesitantly held one hand out towards the fire. As the Words formed on her tongue, she suddenly found herself drawn into the fire, as though she could see through it, see past it, see beyond it into the roiling energy and life that made it what it was. Her arm straightened then, confidently, and her eyes glowed. "Ignis relucesca," she whispered softly, like a mother to a frightened child.

There was no shower of sparks. Instead, the fire suddenly leapt into the sky, shooting up towards the branches above them, and glowing with a white-hot light that was so brilliant Oni had to shield his eyes. Rion held it there, savoring the feeling of the fire burning all around her, inside of her, in her head, yet with such a sweet cleansing pain as to make it a feeling she did not wish to relinquish. After several seconds, she reluctantly let go, and it slowly subsided back into the cheery golden flicker of a normal campfire.

Oni stared at her in amazement, and Fox and Jana gaped. Rion blinked a few times before turning to Oni. "What did you do?" he asked, breathless.

She shrugged. "I told it to become brighter, just like you did."

"What's going on?" Ryu came charging through the trees towards them, sword in hand. When he saw the little party all sitting comfortably around the fire, he was very confused. "I saw a light. What happened?"

Oni flushed. "The Wordmaster was just…practicing her skills," he explained. "You should have seen it, General. The fire shot into the heavens with the light of the sun."

"I DID see it," Ryu responded disapprovingly. "And we'll be lucky if every Tehman within five miles of here didn't see it too." From over his shoulder he produced two rabbits that he'd shot with his bow. "We have dinner," he declared. "Cook it quickly…because we're sleeping without a fire tonight."

**********

The next few days of their journey passed fairly unremarkably. Oni continued to teach Rion the art of Words, and at every turn was amazed at her quick understanding, and how easily she grasped even the most complex Word-spells he knew. Not only could she understand and perform the spells, she could actually carry them out much, much better than he could. Oni found that despite his original intention to be the girl's teacher, she was teaching HIM. And with every improvement and addition to her abilities, he found that his own were strengthened as well.

Jana became the self-appointed scout for the party, running ahead and back to find possible shelter, water, and food. And Fox, with his interest in the local wildlife, was constantly creating new teas, pastes and lotions that he would test on himself. Half of his creations left him with rashes and indigestion, while the other half seemed to cure the ailments created by the first. Rion let him have a page in her notebook to make notes on, and soon they were all benefiting from his efforts in the evenings, cleansing and soothing blistered feet and settling weary muscles.

Rion had discovered some interesting things about her abilities with Words; for one thing, if she looked at something hard enough, or thought about something hard enough, the Word for it would usually materialize on the tip of her tongue. She began to keep a list in her notebook of all the Words she had learned, and found to her surprise that if she wrote a Word in her notebook it somehow gave her an even greater power over it. She was never tired now, nor were any of the others, from the long stretches of walking; her newfound abilities allowed her to keep the energy and spirit of the group at high levels. She practiced every Word-spell that Oni had taught her, and even began making up a few of her own. They were all silly things, like making a flower change color or reading a butterfly's thoughts; but the more successes she had, the more confident she felt.

The one thing that disturbed Ryu was that Rion still believed all of this was a dream. She didn't believe she really had Wordmaster abilities, and she didn't believe that their mission or their journey was real. He wondered, after they'd been traveling for several days, how she could possibly still assume that it was all a dream. Yet each time he or Fox or any of the others would try to convince her otherwise, she'd roll her eyes, laugh it off, and make more notes in her little book. Ryu was concerned. If Rion did not believe, genuinely, in her own abilities, how could she hope to save the Princess with them? But he needn't have worried about that, because on the third night, halfway through their journey, Rion became a believer.

**********

Ryu set his knapsack down by the riverbank and looked around warily. He hated making camp like this, out in the open, but there wasn't a sheltered area for several miles in any direction. They would have no choice, tonight. "No fire," he declared after a moment. "We're too exposed out here."

The rest of the party grumbled in disappointment. Spending the night without a fire meant that it would be a long, cold evening of shivering under blankets, without light or warmth, and they weren't looking forward to it.

"But, General Ryu," Jana protested. "What about these?" She held up the bodies of two plump duck-like birds that she had killed earlier. Ryu had been teaching her to use his bow, and she'd proven herself quite a good shot.

Ryu shook his head, blue ponytail swinging. "I'm sorry, Lady Jana. But we cannot risk it."

Fox looked from one to the other, disapproval in his eyes. The two of them had been getting awfully chummy the past few days, and he wasn't sure he liked it. It seemed like every time he wanted to talk to Jana, she was off somewhere chatting with Ryu, learning how to shoot that stupid bow or exchanging combat knowledge. He was feeling very left out, and so he jumped in to the conversation. "Hey, come on, General. Just for an hour or so…it couldn't hurt. I've got all kinds of new herbs that I've been wanting to try."

Jana turned to Fox. "Ryu's right," she nodded, much to Fox's disgust. "It really is too dangerous. We're already halfway to Ketsukan. We don't want to take chances."

Muttering to himself, Fox turned away. And that was when a new thought struck Rion. "Jana," she began, coming over to her friend, "would you let me see those birds?"

Jana raised an eyebrow, but she handed them to Rion. They were heavier than the writer had anticipated, but as she stroked one soft, feathery belly her gift started to assert itself. In a moment she was not touching the bird, but the bird's heart, and then she was looking right at the essence of the creature itself. "Poor thing," she whispered, almost to herself. "He lost his mate last year to a pack of wild dogs."

Jana and Ryu exchanged glances, but Rion suddenly looked up. "Jana, if you'll pluck and clean them, we can eat them tonight. And we won't need a fire," she added, nodding towards the general. Jana was skeptical, but Rion patted her arm with a big grin. "Trust me."

So Jana set about preparing the birds, though how they would ever get cooked without a fire was beyond her. Rion went to find Fox, to ask him if he would gather up the herbs he'd spoken of. When everything was ready, the little party sat down in a circle, all eyes on Rion. Even Oni wasn't certain what she planned to do. Carefully, Rion took the raw meat from her brother. He had rubbed it all over with some sweet-smelling spices, and Rion smiled as she held the meat in her hands.

Concentrating, Rion stared down at the meat. The shiny pink surface, smeared with bits of green herbs, soon gave way to a deeper view. She could see the muscle fibers, the tendons and connective tissue, the very cells themselves. And after a long moment, even those succumbed to the most fundamental building blocks of all; an energy, a truth that went beyond physical manner. The Words flowed through her brain as naturally as thought, and she spoke them out loud, calmly. "Assus epops fio victus." The others watched, breathlessly, as a warm white glow moved from Rion's hands, into the meat she was holding. She continued to stare at it as if she could see right through it, and after a minute or two, repeated the phrase. The smell of roasting duck began to fill the air, combined with the sweet scent of Fox's herbs and spices. Oni's mouth dropped open. Now this was a spell he had never seen before…though it did not surprise him that Rion should be the one with the power to use it.

Rion continued her chant for almost twenty minutes, until the outside of the meat had turned a crackling golden brown, and she was certain that every last inch of the inside was white and steaming. When she was finished, she looked up, suddenly feeling a little tired. But the looks on her friends' faces were enough to chase all weariness away. "It's done," she announced, and began to break off pieces of the now roasted birds for everyone to eat.

They all agreed that it was the most delicious meat they had ever tasted, and while Fox joked about his spices being the cause, they all knew better; somehow Rion's powers had managed to cook their dinner to perfection, and they hadn't even needed a fire.

That night, Ryu took the first watch, and they all laid down for sleep. It was still cold and uncomfortable without a fire, but at least with a warm meal in their bellies it was not too difficult to fall asleep.

Oni woke when Ryu shook his shoulder. "My turn at watch already?" the young man complained loudly, but Ryu clapped a hand over his mouth.

"Shh. There's something out there."

Immediately Oni was wide awake. He could vaguely make out Jana's form a few feet away; she was already on her feet, ashen staff in hand. "The Wordmaster and Lord Fox," he inquired, this time in a whisper.

"Over there. Wake them, and erect the shield. I think we may see battle on this journey after all."

Oni did as he was told without hesitation. He and Ryu had encountered Tehman countless times before, and each time he hoped he'd never have to experience it again. Rion and Fox rubbed the sleep from their eyes as Oni explained what was happening in a hurried whisper.

Fox looked for Jana, and when he saw her standing by Ryu's side his eyes narrowed. "Watch Rion," he said to Oni, and before Oni could stop him the red-haired boy had sprung to Jana's side.

Rion was excited. "We're gonna get to see a Tehman?" she asked enthusiastically.

Oni cast her an odd look. "Let's hope not," he responded. He bent down to draw a large circle with his fingertip in the sand of the riverbank. "Quickly, Wordmaster. Get inside the circle."

Rion obeyed, and as soon as the two of them were standing inside, Oni put his hands above his head. "Contego orbiendis tuteleus," he declared, as loudly as he dared. A humming field of energy, glowing a soft blue color, suddenly formed itself like a protective glass cover over the top of them, its edges resting within the circle on the ground. Rion gazed at the field curiously. She reached out and laid her palm against it; it was smooth and cool and tingly, and she pulled her hand away with a smile on her face.

That smile faded when she caught sight of the thing that was lumbering towards Ryu, Jana, and her brother. She was so numbed that she didn't even think to reach for her notebook. The Tehman was about five feet tall, but so broad and long that it probably weighed at least three hundred pounds. It moved quickly, like a cat, sometimes on all fours and sometimes only on two legs. The soft glow of Oni's shield illuminated the creature enough that she could see it was a grayish-black color, covered in long, coarse fur. It had two fingers on each of its front limbs, and each finger boasted a six inch, curving claw, and its face was long, with an upturned snout and thick, fatty wrinkles all over it. The eyes were tiny, marble-like black things buried deep within the hideous skull. Immediately Rion was regretting her wish to see a Tehman. It was not a pretty sight.

The Tehman lunged for Ryu first, apparently attracted by the faint light glinting off his sword. Ryu dodged the sharp claws but was unable to inflict any damage himself. Jana used her staff to catapult herself over the creature's head so that it would have to fight one adversary on either side. She landed smoothly, and in the same motion brought her staff down with a resounding crack upon the Tehman's neck: a blow whose force would have decapitated a lesser creature. Yet it did nothing besides cause the Tehman to turn its attention to her, and with one mighty swipe it sent Jana flying backwards through the air.

"Jana!" Rion screamed, lunging forward. Oni tried to stop her, but it was too late. The Tehman heard her cry and turned towards them. Its eyes lit up, and it started to move toward them.

Oni shook his head. "Wordmaster, you shouldn't have done that."

Ryu leapt in from the side, striking with his sword so that he drew the first blood. Temporarily sidetracked, the Tehman turned to focus on the general. Rion stared up at Oni in amazement. "Why are we just sitting here?" she demanded furiously. "We're the ones with all the great Word power, right? Why aren't we out there helping them?"

"The Tehman are born and bred with one purpose in life…to destroy Wordmasters," Oni replied. "Our powers of the Words are ineffectual against them in battle. It was the Tehman who killed off nearly all of the Wordmasters during the war. They were brought to life by Khayyin and no one except the Princess herself could hope to rid Jiniarin of them." He met Rion's eyes. "We cannot help them, because we are the ones the Tehman wants."

Suddenly frightened, Rion watched Fox as he rushed to Jana's side. He said something to her, but they were too far away to hear. And then Jana was sitting up, pushing him away, and looking for her staff which was lying a few feet beyond. Rion breathed a sigh of relief. Jana wasn't dead. But she could see a purpling bruise forming on her friend's pretty face, and she ground her teeth in frustration. She wanted to be out there helping them!

Jana leapt back into the conflict, providing some relief for the general who was already displaying several deep gashes from the Tehman's claws. Both of them were putting up a good fight, but the Tehman was much faster and stronger, and Rion found herself wondering how on earth Ryu had been able to fight these things off alone, let alone with assistance.

Jealousy burned in Fox's eyes as his girlfriend shoved him away and went to help Ryu. She thought he was weak, Fox realized, watching as Ryu and Jana combined their efforts to hold the Tehman away from the Wordmaster and the apprentice behind the glowing shield. But he wasn't weak. Fox could defend his own family just as well as Jana or Ryu, and he was determined to prove it. He quickly ran over to his knapsack and dumped the entire contents out on the ground. Where was it? He knew he had some in here somewhere… Finally he found what he was looking for, and seized a small brown pouch and a little glass vial from the mess on the ground. Yeah. This would do it.

He looked up just in time to see Ryu knocked to the ground, and a split second later, Jana was flung out into the river. The Tehman grunted in satisfaction and turned its attention to Oni and Rion.

Oni's eyes widened. "Brace yourself, Wordmaster," he warned. "The shield will only hold for a few moments."

"We'll see about that," Rion retorted, lifting her own hands to mimic his position. "Contego orbiendis tuteleus!" A stream of the same blue power, only much brighter, burst from her fingertips to combine itself with Oni's shield. The strength around them was suddenly tripled, but Oni knew that while it might buy them some extra time, it still would not be enough. He held his arms up firmly, and both Wordmaster and apprentice stared the Tehman down. The creature charged the protective barrier, crashing into it with a force that both Rion and Oni felt down to the core. Rion suddenly realized what Oni had meant. This thing had no Word power at all. It was not affected by them because it was a blank being, a creature without real life. It was soulless. One more crash like that, and their shield would come down, for sure.

"Heeeere, ugly, ugly, ugly."

Rion gasped as she caught sight of Fox approaching the Tehman. He was unarmed, with nothing but a little bottle and pouch in his hand. "Fox, no," she whispered, wanting to cry out to him but not daring. "Fox, you can't…it will kill you."

But her redheaded brother did not seem too concerned about that. He took a step forward and uncapped the vial in his hand. The Tehman at first was not impressed, but then he caught a whiff of whatever the substance in the vial was, and he froze, sniffing the air, the tip of his snout twitching.

"Yeah, you like that, don't you, boy?" Fox grinned, waving the vial over his head. "Well, come on…come get it."

"Fox, what are you doing? You're crazy!" Rion hissed between her teeth, but Fox ignored her.

"Come on, that's it." The Tehman dropped to all fours and started lumbering towards the boy.

Rion turned her head away. "I can't watch this."

Fox put the open vial down on the sand and backed away just as the Tehman reached him. It lowered its head to pick up the little glass bottle with its teeth, and as it tipped its head back to swallow, Fox flung a handful of the powdery stuff from his pouch all over the creature. The creature choked suddenly, and stiffened, and then let out a howl of fury that shook Rion to the bone. In a movement swifter than lightning it had moved over to Fox and slashed at him with its long, knifelike claws. Rion screamed, not caring whether the creature heard her or not. It was very dark, but she had still seen the contrasting shadow that appeared on Fox's chest as he began to bleed. The Tehman ran forward to leap upon the boy and crush him to death, but it only made it as far as Fox's legs before it started shrieking again. Stumbling and rolling, the Tehman dashed away from Fox, towards the river.

Rion and Oni stared in shock as the enormous monster threw itself into the water, rolling and scratching and hissing in pain. In a moment, it had traveled out too far, and was sucked beneath the current of roiling black water. It did not come up again.

Rion dropped the shield and ran to Fox. Jana was just pulling herself out of the water, having fought a dangerous battle against the river current herself, but she heard Rion calling Fox's name and forgot her own pain instantly. Ryu, too, had regained his footing. He had been conscious long enough to know that the Tehman was drowned, which puzzled him as every Jiniarin knew that the Tehman despised water. As they all gathered around Fox, however, it became clear that their little party was to pay a great price for the death of their enemy.

Fox's breathing was ragged, and Rion dared not touch him for fear of causing him more pain. The front of his chest was ripped open, exposing the bone of his ribcage, and the blue T-shirt he had on had been completely soaked with blood in a matter of seconds. His legs had been crushed by the Tehman, one ankle flopping off to the side at a terrifyingly useless angle.

"Fox…what did you do?" Rion gasped, staring down at her brother in shock and horror.

Despite the pain, Fox was still able to muster a grin. "Catnip," he managed. "And…itching powder. Gets critters…every time." His face contracted with pain, cutting off his words, and then suddenly, he went limp.

"Fox!" Jana cried, dropping to her knees. "He's not breathing…"

Ryu put a hand on each girl's shoulder. "I'm so very sorry," he said quietly.

Rion flung the hand away, staring at the blue-haired man in disbelief. "But…it's only a dream," she protested numbly. "This is all just a dream." She turned to get reassurance from Oni, but his eyes were so full of sympathy it made her want to throw up. "It's a dream," she insisted, backing away several steps. "It's a dream…"

Jana looked up, her face streaked with tears. "Do something, Rion. Please. You have to help him."

Rion shook her head, pushing her glasses back up on her nose. "No, it's just a dream, this isn't real…"

"Listen to me." Jana sprung to her feet and stalked over to Rion, seizing her chin and forcing the smaller girl to meet her eyes. "This is NOT a dream. This is really happening. And if you don't do something, Fox is going to die."

Rion shook her head again, her own eyes overflowing. "No…no…"

Jana shook Rion's shoulders, so hard that the writer's head snapped backwards. "Rion, do something! You have to!"

"But it's just a dream…"

"What if it's not?" This question lashed Rion's senses back into place. The writer met Jana's tearstreaked face, the words echoing through her head. Suddenly her face hardened, and without another word she pushed Jana away and marched back to Fox's lifeless body. Jana followed, slowly, but Oni shook his head as he watched Rion kneel beside her brother.

"Lady Jana, she may be a Wordmaster, but…" he sighed. "Not even a Wordmaster can restore the dead."

"He's not dead yet," Rion responded, staring with that same intensity at her brother's face. "But he will be soon." She reached out her hands, hovering them over Fox's torn and bloodied chest. Quietly, she began to chant, Words so full of emotion and pleading that it almost hurt to hear them. Her fingers started to glow.

Rion chanted for what seemed like hours. First, she had to repair Fox's punctured lung and get him breathing again. This task took almost thirty minutes, because during that time she had to feed fresh oxygen into his blood to avoid brain damage. His heart was still pumping, thankfully, and after she had repaired the lung and he took his first ragged breath, the rest of the group sighed with relief. Oni could see, though, that the struggle to heal her injured brother was taking its toll on the young Wordmaster, so while Jana kept a rag soaked in Fox's own version of chloroform under Fox's nose, Oni put a hand on Rion's shoulder to lend her what energy he could.

Carefully, Rion examined every cell in Fox's body, fusing torn tissue here, cleaning out infectious bacteria there. The others watched in amazement as very, very slowly, the bloodied skin grew together again beneath her hands, until finally his chest was sealed. There was a long diagonal stripe of scar tissue running from the top of his left shoulder nearly to his right hip, but the bleeding had stopped, and his heart and lungs were still functioning. As she worked, Rion was struck with comprehension. Jana had been right, this WAS real. She could see Fox's soul, feel his life and spirit running through her. There was no longer any doubt in her mind. Whatever all of this was…it was no dream.

Rion moved on to her brother's legs after that. The bones themselves had been splintered, and in some places were completely ground into powder under the weight of the Tehman's assault. Healing his legs took her almost twice as long as his chest had, because of the arduous task of locating each and every bone fragment and putting it back where it belonged. She worked all night long, and into the morning. As the sun was finally beginning to warm the riverbanks with long, golden rays, Rion fit the last sliver into place, and dropped back, exhausted. Oni, too, felt as though he might never stand up on his own two feet again. He realized that Rion had spent all of her energy, and all of his as well, to save Fox. Without a word, the two of them collapsed into a heap on top of one another, sound asleep.

Jana removed the chloroform from Fox's face, and met Ryu's eyes. "Something tells me we won't be doing any traveling today, General," she declared tiredly. "Get some sleep. I'll take first watch this time."

Ryu chose to accept her offer without argument. He was starting to feel ill, and his body craved sleep so badly he would have made a poor watchman at any rate. He and Jana took turns sleeping for the rest of that day, and into the night. The following morning they were able to rouse the others, though it was still evident that both Wordmaster and apprentice were sapped of strength. Rion did not even have the energy to cast a revitalizing spell, and Fox's newly restructured legs and ankle were still so fragile that he could not walk on them.

Jana used Ryu's sword to cut her staff in two, and by using the rope and blankets they carried she and Ryu were able to construct a makeshift litter. Very gently she eased Fox onto it, and then Ryu took up the end. One side of Jana's face was now a deep navy blue from the blow she had received, but she had regained enough strength from her brief hours of sleep to support both Rion and Oni.

The now crippled party started on their way again. It was not Ryu's intention to try and cover distance; he needed to get them all to shelter, where they would be safe from another Tehman attack. If they somehow were attacked again, Ryu doubted very highly that any of them would make it. Every half hour or so, he called a brief halt to pour a little of his liquid aspirin concoction down Fox's throat. Though the young man's bones and essential tissues had been mended, they were by no means healed, and the bumping ride over the stony path was something close to agony.

Oni did his best to support himself, not wanting to use any more of Jana's limited strength than he had to. Rion was so exhausted that she was only half conscious, which meant that Jana had to drag her with every other step. The hours passed with torturous slowness, but it was not in vain. As darkness fell yet again, Ryu stumbled the last few steps into the mouth of a small cave in the rocks. They had been traveling upriver, and the cave was one of the many tunnels and caverns that the water had carved, millimeter by millimeter, through the solid rock. The early spring floods had already withdrawn, and Ryu knew that despite that particular Tehman's mad dash into the river, the Tehman would steer clear of this place due to the rushing waterfall above and beside them.

The cave was dark and deep. Ryu laid the litter down as gently as his quivering muscles would allow. It had taken them all day to travel only five miles. He began to fumble with his knapsack, searching for his flint. Jana, Rion and Oni had all collapsed a little farther back into the cave, and all of them were out cold. His veined fingers shook as he struck the flint against the blade of his little knife; finally on the fifth attempt, he got a spark, and quickly tossed some additional kindling into the flame. He laid three or four larger pieces of wood that he'd gathered on their way into the cavern onto the flickering fire, and was only able to maintain consciousness long enough to ensure that they did indeed catch flame before he, too, fell into a deep and dreamless sleep.

**********

They slept for nearly three days, only occasionally waking to drink from the river or put more wood on the fire. Afterwards, Rion and Oni found their strength returned to them, and thanks to Rion's revitalizing spell they were all soon feeling greatly improved. Rion wanted to try and heal Jana's face, and the cuts on Ryu's arms, but Oni advised against it. They had many miles to travel before they would reach Ketsukan, and they were now far behind schedule. Fox was no longer in pain, but was still unable to use his ankle. He instructed Jana and Rion in how to make a thick paste, and they dipped strips of his ruined T-shirt into it before wrapping it around his foot. The cloth and paste hardened into a solid cast, and though it was rather ugly it functioned nicely. Fox used the broken remnants of Jana's staff as crutches, and once everyone had been fed and rested as well as was possible, they continued their journey to the capital city.

Rion was very quiet. She had a lot to think about; now that she was certain this wasn't a dream, she couldn't stop asking herself what it really was. It seemed unfathomable to her that this could be real; that there was really an alternate dimension full of Robin-Hood people and magical creatures and spells and enchanted princesses. She'd always prided herself on her imagination, and now she was beginning to wonder if she had ever imagined any of it, or if it was all just as real as she was. But if they were really here, in Jiniarin, on their way to save a Princess, then it meant that she was really expected to be able to break the spell; and Rion didn't think she had that much power, no matter what Oni said.

How was she supposed to break a spell that had the ability to trap a person as powerful as the Agnis Princess? Sure, she could do little things. Parlor tricks, really. And in emergencies she was able to heal broken bones. But that was nothing compared to what they were asking of her. If the time globe was made of the same stuff that the Tehman were, and she was certain that it was, how was she supposed to overcome it? She couldn't even help Fox and her friends against the Tehman. Ryu had said that other Wordmasters had died trying to break the secret of the time globe, and Rion had the unpleasant feeling that she would most likely suffer the same fate.

Fox and Jana tried to cheer her up, but she was not in the mood to be cheerful. It was her fault that they were both here. She had been the one that Ryu wanted, not them; and her brother had almost died because of it. Rion didn't write in her journal anymore. At night, she just sat staring into the fire blankly, and when she slept, she could not dream. The red-haired Princess no longer appeared to her.

They had to travel much more slowly now that Fox was on crutches, but no one even suggested leaving him behind. He had been willing to risk his life for all of them, and despite the press for time Ryu had too much honor to even consider such a thing. If Fox had ever doubted Jana's feelings for him he was doubly reassured now. She fussed over him like a worried mother hen, and it would have been irritating if it hadn't been so lovable. Fox thoroughly enjoyed every minute of it.

Rion kept a close count of the days. Ryu had told them when they arrived that he and Oni only had two weeks of life left. If they didn't get to Ketsukan before then, both of them would die. It had already been over a week and a half. If they were going to make it, it would be by the skin of their teeth. And she couldn't help but notice that the ominous blue veins on both men had spread all the way up to their necks and were beginning to creep into their jaws and foreheads. No one complained, not even Fox, as Ryu pushed the pace a little faster each day. The sand in the hourglass was running out, and everyone felt the tension.

On the fourteenth day of their journey, with only a few precious hours before sunset, they topped a small hill. And there, in the valley, lay the city of Ketsukan. Rion could have cried for joy.

It wasn't much to look at, though she could tell that at one time it must have been a beautiful place. Now, most everything was in shambles, crumbling and charred with the fires of war. Ryu led them through the deserted streets, and there was a creepy sort of haunted feeling in the air as though they were passing through a literal ghost town. Rion couldn't help wondering if, in Jiniarin, ghosts existed just as much as fairies and Tehman. She shivered at the thought and did her best to focus on just following the general. He took them to the very center of the city, where a large, crumbling stone building sat patiently, as if it were waiting for them.

Ryu paused for a moment to gaze up at it. "A hundred years," he mused quietly. "And if it falls, Minami falls too…left alone to rot in that time globe for the rest of eternity."

He turned to Rion. "Are you ready, Wordmaster?" he asked.

Rion swallowed hard. "No." She pushed her glasses up onto her nose. "But we're out of time."

Ryu nodded, and the group made their way through the degenerating castle, up stairs, past paintings and tapestries withered with age, past large, dark empty rooms and little mice scurrying about underfoot. When Ryu finally pushed on the heavy, iron-clad door, it opened with a resounding groan to reveal a room that was familiar to Rion.

The Princess' throne room.

Everything was just as it had been in the vision; a little dirtier and aged, perhaps, but just the same. Rion looked straight ahead of them, and there, hovering above the throne, was a giant translucent black sphere that looked as if it were made of blown glass. Standing inside it, waiting for them, was the princess of Rion's dreams.

Ryu strode into the room and dropped to one knee in front of the sphere. "I've brought her, Minami," he said, his voice trembling. He looked up to see her press her hands to the bottom of the sphere, crouching close to the surface so she could read his lips. She nodded, and even through the dull darkness of the time globe he could see tears in her eyes. He and Oni only had a few hours left. When the sun went down, it would all be over.

Fox put his arm around Jana's waist and drew her in closely, despite the crutches he leaned on. He thought he could imagine what Ryu must be feeling; to be separated from the one he loved must be the most heartbreaking thing in the universe. Jana snuggled up to his chest and met his eyes, silent affirmations of affection running back and forth between them.

Oni, too, came up and bowed on one knee to the trapped Princess. And Rion took several uncertain steps forward. She didn't know if she should speak, or bow, or curtsy; it wasn't every day that one met a real life princess.

Minami straightened up to meet the eyes of the girl who had come to save her. Yes, it was the same child, the one she'd recognized from birth as having the power she needed to escape this wretched globe. Yet…there was something wrong. She gazed deeply at the small writer, trying to determine what it was. She doesn't believe she can do it, the Agnis Princess realized. She doesn't think she has the power.

Rion pushed her glasses back up onto her nose as the princess met her eyes. Minami had such penetrating eyes; they were like red rubies, flashing fire, searing down to the bottom of her soul. And in those eyes, Rion recognized the figure in her dreams. She recognized the girl she'd known since she was a baby, the comforting friend who had always brought such magic into her dreadfully realistic life.

As Rion continued to gaze at Minami, it was as if a heavy curtain was drawn back in her mind. Suddenly magic and reality were merged together. Jiniarin, Earth, Wordmasters, writers…it all blended into one great and powerful whole, a whole that was summed up in the power of Words, the essence and energy that made life possible.

Rion took three more steps toward the globe now, and Minami could see it in her eyes; the understanding that none of the other Wordmasters who had tried to free her had ever been able to achieve. The girl wanted something from her, Minami could tell, but she didn't know what it was. Then Rion reached up and laid her palms flat on the surface of the time globe.

Now Minami understood. With her eyes still locked to the smaller girl's, she put out her hands and pressed them to the globe, right over the places where Rion's hands were. And suddenly she felt herself drawn inside the writer's dark eyes, as though she were traveling right into Rion's body, her own consciousness swelling and drifting away from the confines of time and space and material existence. Hours were minutes. Seconds were years. There was no time, there was no boundaries. She had become Rion. Rion was Minami. They were one and the same, with the same power, the same dreams, the same heartbeat. Their lips moved in perfect sync, forming a single word that seemed to shatter through the throne room like pieces of a splintered mirror.

"Verbadominare." The Word branded itself into Minami's mind just as it did in Rion's; they shared the same pain and the same comprehension. Wordmaster.

With that single utterance, the physical material separating their hands seemed to become like grasping through a cloud. Palms met, fingers entwined, and the room went black in a flash of darkness that chilled everyone to the bone. An instant later, the darkness was gone…and so was the time globe. Minami found herself standing on the steps to her throne, her hands firmly held in Rion's. She was free.

Her lips parted slightly as the realization swept over her. Free. She was finally free. She clasped Rion's hands a little tighter. "I have no words to thank you, Wordmaster," she began.

Rion herself was more than a little stunned, but she instead turned to Ryu and Oni. "You must help them, Princess," she replied. "The sun is setting fast and they have no more strength."

Minami noticed for the first time that both her beloved general and his faithful companion had collapsed on the floor, neither one yet aware that Rion had been successful in her quest. She wasn't sure how long she and Rion had clasped hands; it felt like a only a few brief instants and yet, judging from the swiftly darkening sky outside her window, it had been almost two hours.

The princess nodded, the golden chains of her headdress tinkling musically, and released Rion's hands. She bent down and laid a hand on Ryu, and the other on Oni. Her entire body began to glow with a bright, glorious red aura, and this aura swept out to envelop both men. Rion watched in fascination as the Agnis Princess' extraordinary power cleansed the disease out of their bodies. The unsightly blue veins retracted from their faces and necks, and after a minute or two receded down into their hands. A second later both men were stirring.

Ryu lifted his head to see the face of his Princess smiling sweetly down at him. There was no dark glass separating the two of them now, and for a moment he could hardly believe his eyes. "Minami? Is it you?"

Her smile widened and tears sparkled in the ruby eyes. "Yes. Oh yes, Ryu, my love. You did it. You found the Wordmaster who has set me free."

With that Ryu rose to his knees, drawing her into his arms and holding her as if he would never let go. Rion watched the tender moment with tears in her own eyes, and she felt Fox's hand on her shoulder as he and Jana came up behind her.

"Well, whaddya know," he quipped, though his voice was somehow not as flippant as his words. "My little sister's a miracle worker." He squeezed her shoulders then. "I'm proud of you, kid."

"So am I," Jana nodded from her other side, giving her a little hug.

Minami turned to Oni, who was also regaining his equilibrium. She rose to her feet, pulling Ryu up with her, and he stood with his arm at her waist as she extended a hand towards Oni. Oni took the hand and pressed it reverently to his lips.

"Wordmaster Apprentice Oni Sylvaran, you have proven yourself to be a man of integrity, courage, wisdom and Words. From this day forward you will be called Wordmaster, for you have earned the privilege of that rank in Jiniarin. You carry my blessing with you, now until the end of your days. Henceforth consider it your duty to find new Wordmaster talent, to train them, and to raise up in Jiniarin a new generation of Wordmasters to heal the wounds of our broken land."

Oni bowed his head even lower. "I swear to dedicate my life to the protection of Jiniarin and the Agnis family," he responded in a tone that made Rion think he'd been rehearsing his part of this ceremony for the last hundred years. "I swear that my abilities, resources, energy and time will be spent only in the service of my country and my queen. I swear loyalty to your throne, to Your Majesty, and to your children and your children's children for as long is there is breath in my body."

Minami smiled. "Then rise, Wordmaster, and make good your promises."

Oni stood, eyes shining. Rion could almost feel the excitement streaming off her friend in waves, and she had to grin.

The princess, or rather, queen, turned to Ryu again. "And now it's time to do something I should have done long ago," she said with a gentle smile. "I, Minami Agnis of Jiniarin, do choose you, Ryu Aquinan, as my lifemate and king. I bestow upon you all the power of my family name, and vow that for as long as I live you shall be my only love and only husband. From this moment on, may we be joined together as one family, and rule Jiniarin side by side."

Ryu kept his eyes pinned to the beautiful redhead. "And I, Ryu Aquinan, do accept you, Minami Agnis, as my lifemate and queen. I receive the power which you offer me, and vow that for as long as I live you shall be my only love and only wife. From this moment on, may we be joined together as one family, and rule Jiniarin side by side."

Minami rose on tiptoe, and as their lips met, that red aura began to glow around her again. It spread to Ryu's body once more, but this time, when he pulled away and opened his eyes, Rion and the others could see that they were the same brilliant ruby color as the queen's.

Fox lifted an eyebrow. "And that's a Jiniarin marriage?" he wondered. "Seems a little simple for a queen and king."

Minami turned towards them with a gentle smile of amusement. "We are a simple people, Lord Fox," she responded sweetly. "Right now there are things more important to Jiniarin than a wedding celebration. With Ryu's help, we will begin to drive the Tehman out of our world, and back into the world of darkness from whence they were called. It will not be easy, but we will rebuild our world once again, and with time, it will be as if none of this ever happened." She took a step forward, and Ryu reluctantly released her waist so that she could approach Rion.

"Wordmaster Rion Kino. You have saved the man I love, the Agnis family, and all of Jiniarin itself with your unselfishness. I have no words to thank you, but what I can give, I shall. As a Wordmaster from another dimension, you shall be granted the ability to travel between Jiniarin and you own world, as often as you like. Perhaps in this way, you can gather more inspiration for your writing." She smiled at Rion, who flung her arms around the queen's neck.

"Oh, thank you," she exclaimed happily. When she'd released Minami, the redhead smiled again and turned to Fox and Jana.

"Lord Areku Kino, and Lady Jana Wanku. Jiniarin is indebted to you for the sacrifices you were willing to make and the bravery of your service. You are honorable warriors both, and the gift I give to you is nothing less than what you have given me; love." She opened her palm, and there were two golden rings there, each one set with a ruby that sparkled with inner fires. "These rings will be your gifts to your chosen mates. They will bring your future relationships a bond of loyalty, passion and adoration that no one will be able to sever, and they will remind you of what you had to endure in the name of love."

Each of the teenagers reverently accepted a ring from the queen's palm, and Fox met Jana's eyes. "I already know who's going to be wearing this someday."

"Someday," Jana acknowledged with a nod and a smile.

Fox looked up at Minami with a grin. "So is this the part where we click our heels three times and say 'There's no place like home?'"

Ryu came up behind the queen, resting his arm on her shoulder, and he winked. "Oz is on the other side of the ocean, Lord Fox."

Before any of the three could determine whether he was serious, Ryu and Minami each held out a hand, and blew on it as if blowing kisses. It suddenly seemed as if they were floating, soaring out the window, enveloped in a haze of warm red that surrounded them with soothing, comforting softness. The new king and queen grew smaller and smaller, until the haze obscured everything; and the entire world was awash in ruby light.

**********

Rion yawned and sleepily opened her eyes. Someone was shaking her shoulder. "Uh, excuse me, Miss?"

She looked up to see a slightly familiar face, and gradually recognition dawned. It was the waitress, the one Fox had been flirting with in the diner. She blinked in confusion.

"Sorry to have to wake you, Miss, but the diner closes in five minutes. You might want to wake your friends."

Rion nodded, still half asleep, and she turned to find Fox and Jana, who were also slumped over the table and sound asleep. Then it was a dream…wasn't it? She looked down to find her black notebook lying on the tabletop, and with shaking fingers, she opened to the first page.

Wordmaster -

You are Jiniarin's guardian angel. Please come back to visit us soon…you need only to

write the Words on paper and you will find yourself with us once again. I wish you good fortune

in your new writing endeavors, and may peace and happiness rest on you and your family for as

long as you live.

Your humble apprentice,

-Oni

She looked up from the page to meet Fox's eyes. Jana, too, was awake, and though not one of them spoke, the words were not needed. It was a personal secret, a private experience meant only for the three of them; and for the rest of their lives, not one of them would ever forget.