Shadows flickered in the torch-lined hallways of the fortress. They danced to the beat of an inaudible tune. It gave the halls an eerie feeling to them, like one was surrounded by beings invisible but for their silhouettes. The feeling was familiar to the night guardsmen. They had spent enough time around the leader of the fort to be well-acquainted with the shadows of the night.

Just beyond the entrance to the second floor, two guards stood at their posts. The torches, as usual, were producing their magnificent and ghostly dances. The guards, well trained as they were, paid no mind to the shadows, knowing that it was just a distraction from their duties. One shadow stood out from the rest, however. Fairly constant in its shape, unlike the other shadows, it moved smoothly across the ground and passed one torch after another. It slid down the center of the hallway and slipped past the guards unnoticed.

Once inside, the shadow continued on its journey, turning corners and passing by patrols with ease. No one bothered to pay enough attention to it for any suspicion to arise, so when the shadow reached its destination, it was alone. Slowly, the shadow began to push upwards into the air. The blob transformed itself into the rough shape of a human before features started forming on it. Soon, the shadow was gone and replaced with a man dressed from head to toe in black, complete with a hooded cloak obscuring the man's face. The man wasted no time, pointing himself at a nook in the wall. A second person appeared from its shadows, dressed identically to the first.

"You're late," the second person said, revealed to be a woman. "Normally I wouldn't mind it; you're always late. But you were supposed to be here three days ago."

"I got held up." His answer was brief and to the point.

"Did you find the target?"

"Yes, but things went awry soon after. The target was lost. That's why I got held up."

The news seemed to visibly stun the woman. "… So we are to continue despite this setback?"

"With the needed modifications."

"Of course." The woman reached into the interior of her cloak. "This requires transport. You know what it is. You know what to do with it." She handed the object pulled from the cloak to the man. "Move with the utmost of haste."

The two people bowed, their meeting over. The woman faded back into the shadows of the alcove. The man checked his surroundings before melting back into the puddle of darkness that he arrived as, just as another patrol rounded the corner. The patrol none the wiser, he slipped out of the fortress the way he came.

Chapter VIII – Prison Break

Ann trembled. Her grip on her bow loosened. She was clearly in distress. "Damian…" she whispered. "I think we're in trouble…"

Damian tensed up as he surveyed the immediate area. No kiddin', he thought. The large ship tethered to the port side of the boat was the least pressing concern of his. Nine… ten, eleven, twelve… thirteen… fourteen people, plus the ones below, and any others that are still on their ship. Not good. He gritted his teeth. The way they had stormed up onto the deck, Damian knew the intruders surrounding them considered them as hostile. Neither he nor Ann were well equipped to take on the numbers they faced. The odds were against them in a fight. Their only chance seemed to be surrender. I don't like the idea… putting our fates into the hands of people that could want to kill us… but… Damian hesitated. Out of the corner of his eye, he could see Ann nervously turning back and forth. Two of the men to their sides were beginning to advance. It was now or never.

"Ann, get on your knees," Damian hastily said as soft as he could. Ann's wide eyes looked upon him as if he had just told her to jump off a cliff. "Just do it! Put your bow on the ground, but don't let go of it." Damian knelt down slowly, trying not to provoke a negative reaction from the people surrounding them. Ann did the same, holding her bow against the deck.

"You sure--"

"We don't have a choice. But be ready to fight… just in case."

The reaction from the intruders surprised Damian somewhat. The advancing men stopped moving, and a few of the others visibly relaxed. The rest remained on guard, but apparently had not anticipated a submission from them. A gradual look around them told Damian that they were still not backing down, as the archers still had arrows trained on them. The men below deck were behind them at the bottom of the stairs, keeping their distance. Not a single word was uttered between the groups, each waiting for a signal from the other.

A shout pierced the silence from the deck of the intruders' ship. "Lay down your arms!" A loud thud followed the voice. "You two, lay them down and get up!" Ann swung her head around to get a look at where the voice was coming from. A new man was standing at the edge of their boat's deck. His clothing, covering what seemed to be a very well-built body, was similar to that of the uniform the others wore. It seemed to be made from a rougher, stronger material though. Light brown hair, cut very short, covered his head. The man's stern gaze fell onto her. Immediately, her hand released the bow from her grip. Damian, though he had not looked at the man yet, complied with his demand. A few seconds later, both he and Ann were standing again, unarmed.

"Good…" the unnamed man said, stepping away from his spot. He slowly walked around them. A battle axe hung on his back, and he held a short, straight blade in his hand. "Who are you?" His tone was harsh and demanding. It unsettled Damian. Ann shifted her body back slightly.

"You get your men to lower their weapons and--"

"You are not in a position to be making demands, kid." The man held his sword up to Damian's chin. "Talk, or I kill you."

"Fine," Damian spat. "I'm Damian. She's Ann. And don't call me 'kid' again."

"What's your business here, child?" The man put an excessive amount of emphasis on the final word.

"Why you, what did…" Damian clenched his fists, but managed to see the obvious tactic being employed in time to stop himself from throwing the punch he so desired to deliver. "… We're just traveling through. And since I know what the next question will be," Damian shot him the best glare he could manage, "it's none of your concern."

"Hmph." The man lowered his sword down the Damian's chest. "Boy, you can't fool me with that act… you're scared." The man watched for the anticipated reaction from Damian, and was rewarded with him shifting nervously. "Still, I hafta give you credit. You've got guts."

"Well, considering that you people pretty much invaded our home, I think he has every right to be upset!" Ann shouted as harshly as she could. The man shot an intimidating glance over to Ann, and despite fighting the urge, she shrunk back behind Damian, the anger on her face replaced by anxiety.

"Are you two the only ones on this little boat of yours?" the man asked, continuing his interrogation.

"Yeah," Damian answered. The man, still holding the sword to Damian's chest, looked down the stairwell at the men gathered at the bottom. One of the men gave a confirming nod, and the man brought his eyes back to the two teens in front of him.

"You two are fortunate that we're the ones that boarded this boat. Anyone else would've probably killed you without a moment's hesitation." Much to Damian and Ann's surprise, the man lowered his weapon. His voice was noticeably less hostile as well. "I have no reason to trust either of you. But you haven't given me any reason to kill you either. Feel lucky."

"So are you gonna let us go?"

"No." The answer was clear as the sky above. "Don't start arguing, or I may change my mind about having a reason to kill you on the spot. I don't care who you are or where you were heading, you're comin' with us now."

"But… but why?" Ann was as confused as she was afraid.

"Because I said so, and because my ability to kill you says so. That should be reason enough." The man inserted his sword into the sheath hung on his belt. "Follow me."

With no other options available, Ann and Damian did as they were told. The still nameless man directed them to the ship. The deck of the ship, at its lowest point, was nearly twice as high above the ocean as their boat. A rope ladder hung from the side allowed them to climb aboard the ship. Once on the deck, Damian and Ann saw just how futile their chances of escape really were. Over a dozen men and women were scattered across the surface of the ship, going about their duties. There was no time to watch, though; the man, having just finished climbing onto the deck himself, pushed them forward, toward one of the nearby cabins. Within moments, one person after another noticed the teenagers' presence and stopped what they were doing to get a look. The attention was very awkward for both of them, neither quite sure what to make of the situation.

Upon entering the cabin the man had pushed them towards, Damian gasped. All four walls of the cabin were almost completely covered in maps and pictures. Small tables lining much of the side walls were covered in what appeared to be ancient artifacts. Even the larger desk at the back of the room was littered with old trinkets. It was, as Damian was tempted to point out, an archeologist's dream.

"Captain!" the man said firmly, breaking Damian's moment of awe. "We have 'guests.'" Damian looked back to the person behind the desk that he had, in his awe of the room itself, completely overlooked. The person, apparently the captain of the ship, was turned away from them, studying one of the maps on the wall. The captain turned to face the trio, revealing herself in full.

"So it would seem," the captain replied. She walked towards them, an air of complete control about her. Long, blonde hair trailed behind her as she walked. Her clothing, while indicative of her status, was still very plain and similar to those that the crew outside wore. It conformed to her figure loosely, though still enough to give an idea of what was underneath: a somewhat firm, toned body. She stopped only inches in front of them. Damian, much to his dismay, was forced to look up at her, as she was several inches taller than both he and Ann were. "Your boat looked abandoned… apparently, I was mistaken."

"Yeah, well, we were asleep. That was one heck of a morning greeting you gave us." Ann was far more comfortable confronting the woman than she was with the man behind her.

The woman smirked. "Before we move on, a bit of friendly advice: never leave the helm of a boat unattended."

"Ah, you hear that? Straight from the captain of--"

"Quiet, you." Ann shook her head at Damian's dismissal. She knew now was not the time for it, but she couldn't resist taking that jab.

The woman seemed to take the minor detour in stride. "Perhaps I could get your names?" she asked as she took a step back to get a better look at them.

This time, Ann took it upon herself to make the introductions. "My name's Ann. His is Damian."

"Well, Damian, Ann, welcome aboard my vessel."

"Thanks… I guess. Listen, Captain…" Damian trailed off, realizing that they never got her name.

"Dobble. Captain Kathryn Dobble."

"Captain Dobble… I don't mean to be rude, but why would you board a little boat like ours in the first place?"

"Because we thought it was abandoned," she replied.

"Yeah, we got that. But why bother?"

"People outside our group would be apt to call us 'pirates.' That should be enough of an answer for you."

Ann groaned on the inside. Should've known we'd come across pirates sooner or later…

"Well, we don't have anything of value to you… just our basic supplies," Damian assured her.

"We'll see, we'll see… Speaking of which, Hugo, go see if the men have found anything of interest." The man left the cabin without a word of acknowledgement. "Now then… would you care to divulge what your destination is?"

"Nope." Damian's reply was swift. He had come to the decision before they even set foot on the ship that he would not give them any information of what they were trying to do.

"Well, what about you, Ann?"

"Same," she said flatly.

"I see…" Kathryn slid her right hand into her pants pocket. "You know, this isn't making it any easier for me to trust you."

"Yeah, well, invading our boat didn't make it any easier for us to trust you." Ann grimaced, unsure if Damian's hasty remark would harm their chances of release. The chuckle that followed eased her fears slightly.

"Fair enough."

Hugo chose that moment to reappear in the doorway. "M'am, we found something that I think you might wanna take a look at." Ann thought she saw Captain Dobble's expression shift, but it disappeared before she could get a chance to look.

"You two, come with us," she said, ushering them out the door.

What the heck could they have found? We don't have anything that's interesting to pirates, of all people. What is that guy talking… shit. Damian's confusion came to a halt the moment he laid his eyes on the crates in the middle of the deck. They were the crates that had been loaded onto the boat on Jahono, completely forgotten about after the events of the days past.

Kathryn came to a stop beside the open crates and peered in. She reached inside and moved a few objects around, examining the contents with some curiosity. Ann and Damian both tried to see what she was doing, but her back was turned and they dared not try moving from where they stood. "So," she said, her hands still rummaging through the contents of the crate, "these constitute 'basic supplies?'"

"Well, um… you see…" Damian stuttered. Dread began to scratch at his consciousness. "To be perfectly honest… we kinda, well, forgot about those…" He was rubbing his arms as he spoke, his composed façade finally breaking down. "We don't even know what's in those crates… we never opened them."

"So you're trying to tell us that you've been carrying this kind of cargo, and you don't even know what it is? What kinda fools do you think we are?" Hugo approached Damian and Ann so fast that they nearly jumped back out of fear he would run through them. "You've got two seconds to explain yourselves before--"

"Hugo! Calm down!" the captain yelled. "Don't start making assumptions! We don't know yet!" Hugo, breathing heavily from rage, marched back to her side. "I'd like to know what's going on as well."

"He already told you, we forgot we had them! We don't know what's in them!" Ann nearly cried back. Hugo's mad dash had shaken her up badly. Damian, while also shaken up, had enough of a grasp on himself to take Ann into his arms.

"Where'd you get these crates?" The captain's expression was no longer collected as it once was; anger was seeping through to the surface.

"We had another person traveling with us up until recently." Damian ignored the twinge of regret that hit him. "He brought the crates with him. We don't know why, he wouldn't tell us."

"Where is this person now?"

Damian averted his eyes. "He… he died." There was a long pause. Damian noticed that the whole crew of the ship was watching them. Some had anger in their eyes, others were simply watching the situation unfold. The whole time, Hugo and Kathryn watched them intensely.

"What do you think?" Hugo asked. There was no attempt to hide the displeasure in his voice. "They could be on either side… or they could be telling the truth."

Captain Dobble didn't answer. Instead, she unsheathed her sword and strode over to Damian and Ann. The two teens took a step back. She stopped a short distance away and held the blade vertically in front of her. A few seconds passed, though it felt like many minutes to the teenagers. Damian tightened his hold on Ann. Finally, the captain made her move. She swung the sword in various directions. None of the strikes hit; they were never intended to. Instead, Damian and Ann found themselves watching the captain go through a few more motions of the blade before she finally stabbed it at them, the tip coming to rest just in front of Ann's head. There was another pause. Ann's breath was caught in her throat, her eyes wide. Damian was similarly affected.

The captain smirked and flipped the blade so that she was holding the tip. "Uno ur liko foceclimso iuniel auyf foclumco."

Damian blinked. Confusion began to push aside the fear. "… What?"

The captain didn't move for a moment, as if waiting for a more appropriate answer. When she finally did move, it was only to flip the blade back again and put it back into her sheath. "Very well…" She turned her back on them, apparently satisfied. "I don't believe there's any deceit in the claims you've made. However, we don't trust you. Not yet. And we also don't have any way of knowing for certain where you stand." She paused, taking a moment to consider her next move. "Therefore… I have decided to keep you onboard this ship until further notice. One of my men will show you to your quarters and give you the rundown on how this ship operates." Without another word, she walked across the deck, signaling to the crew to resume working.

Damian and Ann did nothing but stand there, taken aback by the complete change in their situation. They watched as a group of men carried the crates down into the belly of the vessel they were now trapped aboard. The rest of the crew ignored their presence. Ann freed herself from Damian's grasp but stayed exactly where she was. Bewilderment plastered across her face, she shook her head and muttered to herself before finally saying it aloud.

"What the hell just happened?"

Sand. Sand as far as the eye could see. For as long as anyone could remember, the Tethlys Desert was a sea of sand. The massive dunes, the waves of the sea, were constantly in motion. The wind would often howl across the surface, whipping up the tiny grains of sand into a horrendous storm. Life could not survive in such an environment. Water was unheard of in the vast reaches of this arid ocean. Even at the outermost fringes of the desert, both life and water were sparse. The few people that lived near the desert would never venture into the sands; to do so was to commit suicide. Nevertheless, travelers would sometimes ignore the warnings of the local population and enter the desert, hoping for a shortcut to the plains of Yala. The people would never hear from them again, and they did not care to wonder about their fates. So it was nothing extraordinary when a pair of men appeared in one of the villages scattered across the edge of the desert. As always, the men did not heed the warnings from the villagers, and set out into the desert on their journey. None in the village cared to know what fate befell them.


"Finally…" the voice of a young man groaned. "I thought I was gonna die out there."

"Don't whine so much, Serge. You'll save your strength," a second man said.

"I wasn't whining. Just making a comment. There's a difference."

Deep within the Tethlys Desert, the two men, along with four camels bearing supplies, stood at the bottom of a massive pit between several dunes. The dunes provided partial protection from the winds howling above them. Although the pit was in the shade for the moment, the sun would soon rise high enough into the sky to bathe the pit in sunlight. The men, taking advantage of their time in the shade, had dug a small hole into one side of pit to escape the daytime heat.

"I gotta hand it to ya, Fevnir, your little magic tricks really helped out again," the lanky man known as Sergio said as he lay down in the cavity. "I don't think this hole would've held up without 'em."

"It's the best I could do," Fevnir said. His soft brown eyes drifted upward, checking the strength of the dune above. "My skills aren't really suited for this kind of task."

"Again, not complaining. But do ya think that the camels will be all right standing out there all day?"

Favnir glanced behind him. "Yeah, they're camels. They're made for deserts. Give 'em some food and water every few days and they're more than ready to go."

Sergio removed the hooded cloak that had protected him from the desert environment and took a sip of water from his canteen. He ran his hands through his scruffy-looking brown hair in an attempt to fix it. "You want some?" He held the canteen out for Fevnir to grab.

"I don't need it," Fevnir replied with a dismissing wave.

"You haven't had anything to eat or drink in days. You got a death wish?"

Fevnir let his own cloak spread across the ground as he sat beside Sergio. Relief rushed through his body. As much as he hated to admit it, walking through the desert sand was taking its toll on his legs, even though they were the strongest part of his body. "I don't need food or water. Not here, anyway. I thought I told you this." Sergio stared at him blankly. Fevnir couldn't figure out if the glazed-over look was due to him not understanding or just not caring. He settled on not understanding. "Guess not. Listen, I'm fine, I don't plan on dying anytime soon."

"Suit yourself." Sergio flung himself back down on the ground. "You magic-types are always so weird…" A prolonged silence followed. The sun outside their makeshift shelter began to beat down on the sand. The growing heat would occasionally waft into their refuge, but for the most part it remained relatively cool under the dune. Neither of the men cared enough to strike up a conversation the entire day. Their own thoughts kept them company. After what seemed like entire days to the men, the sun sunk below the horizon.

"Time to get goin', it seems," Sergio sighed. "As much as I wanna get outta this wasteland, there's a part of me that just wants to stay here so I don't have to walk any further."

Fevnir was already on his feet and tending to the camels. "Wasting time isn't part of why I brought you along. We still have a long way to go 'till our destination."

"Yeah… how long until we get outta here, anyway?" Sergio brushed off the sand clinging to his clothing. "The Yalan Plains are another, what, nine days away?"

"The Yalan Plains? We're not heading there."

Stunned, Sergio whipped his whole body around to face Fevnir. His expression was that of a man told he was about to die. His lips moved slowly in an attempt to form the words he wished to speak. Fevnir waited patiently for him.

"What are you trying to say?!" he eventually shouted with enough force to potentially bring down the dunes around them.

"I'm saying that the Yalan Plains are not our destination." Fevnir's attitude was completely calm and in control. It contrasted greatly with Sergio's shock and horror at the consequences of what was being implied.

"The Yalan Plains are the only place to go from here!" he shouted, clearly not accepting what was being proposed. "It's just the desert and the plains! That's it! Nothing else!"

"Tell me something, Sergio, honestly. Would you've come with me if I told you this?"

"No! Absolutely not!" Sergio was flailing his arms at Fevnir. "This desert is lifeless! There's nothing here but sand! Sand and more sand!"

"You're a treasure hunter, right? Am I right in assuming that you've heard about the stories of how this desert was made?" Fevnir's casual manner sucked a great deal of energy out of Sergio's rage.

"Yeah… The legends tell of some giant monster that destroyed the land… What does that have anything to do with me?"

Fevnir let an amused grin slip through. "What if I told you that the remains of that monster were buried underneath all this sand, and that it's still here?" With that single comment, Sergio's rage was completely snuffed out.

"… Still here?" Fevnir nodded. "What could be the greatest treasure of all time is buried here?" Fevnir nodded again. Sergio's excitement was almost tangible. The treasure hunter inside of him was taking over every aspect of his conscious thoughts. A shiver of sheer thrill shot through his body. Fevnir, apparently aware of the excitement building within his companion, chuckled. The grin was replaced with a full-fledged smile.

"And now you know why we're here."

Ann leaned back in her chair, observing the discussion unfolding in front of her. She and Damian had been 'invited' by Captain Dobble to attend a meeting she had called for her crew. The invitation had been more of an order than anything else, however, and that made Ann uneasy. There she was, a captive aboard the ship for two days, and suddenly she got pulled into a meeting meant for the crew. Something about it didn't sit well with her. It made no sense. Glancing over to her right, she could tell that Damian was also trying to wrap his mind around it. It was also obvious that he was failing to do so. His arms were crossed over his chest, and his face was scrunched up from trying to think too hard about the situation.

Damian leaned over and whispered in her ear. "What do you think? Should we just sneak out of here while they're talking? They seem so focused, they probably wouldn't notice us escaping."

"I don't think so. Hugo over there keeps looking at us. I don't think he likes us being here, but he'd probably slit our throats if we try to leave." Ann shuddered. The whole time they sat watching the meeting, she could see Hugo making less-than-obvious glances in their direction. The constant surveillance, combined with his already threatening presence, made it hard for her to stay calm.

Ann turned her attention back to the meeting. While staying on the good side of their captors was the main reason for not wanting to make an attempt to escape, there was another. Although she appeared bored to onlookers, she was actually very interested in what was being said around her. The meeting was centered on an attack they were planned against an enemy fortress. From what she could gather, she knew that the crew had been attacked almost two weeks ago by their enemies, and that many of their people had been captured. They believed that they were still being held in the fortress on an island nearby, and quite predictably, they had a rescue in mind. At the moment, the crew was debating what kind of plan would be more favorable for a rescue operation.

"If we can hit them hard and fast, they'll be knocked so off-balance that we'll be able to defeat them all in one fell swoop," one man suggested. A woman across the table was quick to counter.

"We don't know that for sure. They must know that we'll try something sooner or later, so they'll be prepared. Besides, we don't have enough information about the combat capabilities and supplies they have. And what we do know comes from sources that I would hardly call reliable."

"Then what would you suggest we do?" Captain Dobble asked her, though she posed the question for anyone to answer.

"A covert operation. We can sneak into the fortress and rescue our men without anyone noticing. It shouldn't be too hard to find a weak point in their defenses and exploit it."

"That's assuming there's any weak points at all," the man sitting next to Kathryn remarked. "And don't you think that trying to sneak over twenty people out of a fortress would be nearly impossible? I know the enemy can be pretty stupid at times, but even I don't doubt their ability to notice that."

"You've been awfully quiet, Hugo." Kathryn smiled at the man sitting at the opposite end of the table. "What do you think?"

"A frontal assault is out of the question. They outnumber us, and we don't know what they're capable of. We should never directly attack that which we know nothing about." Hugo shifted in his seat. "However, I'm not comfortable with the idea of sneaking into there and breaking them out. Again, we don't know what we're up against. If we send too few people in, we risk being overwhelmed once we free our men. But if we send in too many, we risk being discovered before reaching the cells."

Kathryn folded her hands and rested her chin on them. "Hm… It's certainly a tough call to make." She closed her eyes. "It won't be easy no matter what we do." When she opened her eyes back up, Ann was quite surprised to see her staring directly at her and Damian. "… Damian, you look like you've got something to say. Why don't you tell us what it is?"

Ann was just as perplexed as Damian at the sudden attention he was getting. "Well… um… it's just…"

The captain giggled, a reaction that Ann thought was very uncharacteristic of a captain. "Just spit it out already. What's the worst that could happen?"

Damian didn't want to imagine what the worst could be. "Well, I don't really know much about tactics and combat and stuff, but I was thinking… what if you staged some sort of distraction while you sent in a few men to do the actual rescue? Make it look like you're attacking directly. I'm not sure, but wouldn't that give you enough time to get your guys out before they realize what's happening? Unless they have some way of knowing or something…"

Kathryn scanned the room. "Were any of you thinking the same thing?" About half of the room nodded warily, likely due to the idea coming from a captive.

"My only reservation is that we wouldn't be able to get our men out before the diversion is overwhelmed," one of the men said.

"I agree; that's certainly a concern." She grinned at Damian before continuing. "But unless anyone has any better ideas, we'll start making plans for such an attack. It's probably our best bet."

Ann waited for an objection to be raised from Hugo, who seemed to be very uneasy about letting Damian speak; it never came. She thought it seemed strange enough that they were allowed to listen to their plans, but to ask for Damian's opinion? She wanted to ask Damian why he thought she did that, however Damian was already a step ahead of her. He shrugged his shoulders and shook his head.

"I have no idea."

Somewhere in the middle of the sea, a ship sailed through open waters. It cut through the dense fog that had settled on the water's surface. The air was quiet. Nightfall was slowly creeping in. The last rays of daylight able to penetrate the haze faded away into nothingness, replaced by the absolute darkness of a moonless night.

Below the ship's deck, Ann hurried through the darkened corridors. In the tight space, she brushed against the many other people that she encountered on her way to the main stairwell. All around her, anxious footsteps echoed through the hull of the ship. The hull itself creaked as it moved, giving the interior of the ship a very eerie feeling to it. Aside from the occasional whisper, those were the only sounds Ann heard.

Damnit, I always get lost down here… Ann felt it unusual for a ship of this size to have a virtual maze of hallways on the bottom level. It made more sense to her to have larger open spaces. She turned a corner and immediately backed away and continued down the path she had been on. Don't wanna deal with those two. Not right now. In a few moments, Ann heard Kathryn and Hugo round the corner, heading in the opposite direction. A couple words of their conversation made it to Ann's ears before they were too far away, but it wasn't enough to discern what exactly they were talking about. Ann couldn't care less. Only one thing was on her mind: finding Damian. Having already checked the main rooms below deck, she assumed he would be topside.

Another corner later she was staring at the stairwell. Finally… She pushed her way through the line of men and women coming down the stairs to make it to the deck above. Now where is he…? The deck was relatively calm. The storm of people she had heard above her only minutes ago were the ones she passed on the way up; the armory, apparently, was about to be hit with a horde of people.

Off to the side of the ship, she at last spotted Damian. He appeared to be gazing out into the foggy night. "There you are," she said as she came up behind him. "Been lookin' everywhere for you." Her eyes examined the leather vest he was wearing over his clothes as he turned around; she had to admit, it looked pretty good on him.

"You have? Sorry…" Damian replied. "What's up?"

Ann frowned. "I'm worried… This whole thing doesn't seem right. Why'd she ask you to do something like this?"

"To be honest, it was less asking and more telling. I can't figure out why she told me I had to do this, but I know I have to."

"But why? Why not just tell her that you won't? We don't have anything to do with their problems."

"Because even though they let us walk around freely, we're still their prisoners." Damian sighed. "Plus, she made it quite clear that if either of us refused to do what we're told, we'd be considered enemies and killed."

Ann gazed down at the water below. "It doesn't make any sense. If they're so worried about us being the enemy, why would she bring you with her to free the prisoners? And why let me fight along with them?"

"That's what I've been trying to figure out. They must be worried that we'd turn on them or something. But they're not forcing us to stay out of it; they're telling us we have to join them…"

A few silent minutes passed. Damian and Ann both leaned forward on the railing, gazing out into the fog. Although they couldn't see it, they knew that their boat was nearby, being piloted by someone from the crew. Everything had been removed from the boat and put on the ship in order to prepare for the mission.


Damian gazed into the deep brown eyes staring at him. "Yeah?"

"Promise me you'll come back." Her eyes were filled with fear, and it took him by surprise.

"Don't worry, I promise. It's a simple in and out deal. I'll be back before you know it." This seemed to ease Ann's fears, and her eyes softened when he spoke. "Here." he said quietly, and pulled something out of his pocket. "Take this." He placed the object in the palm of her hand.

"Is this…?" she asked once she realized what had been given to her.

"Yeah. It's the gem Ganner wore. I found it earlier, after the battle… I think you should have it."

"Thanks." Ann closed her hand around the gift; it felt warm to the touch. She was about to say something else when she felt the ship shudder slightly. "… I think we're stopping."

"You ready to go, Damian?" Ann and Damian turned to face Captain Dobble standing behind them. She was wearing a leather vest similar to Damian's and had two small daggers hung on her hip. In her hands was Damian's sword. "We've got work to do." Damian sent a reassuring glance over to Ann.

"… Yeah. I'm ready."

Gordan stood at attention. His azure gaze was fixated on the man sitting in front of him. The man was easily six feet tall and quite bulky to go with it. Even with the leathery clothing he wore, the outlines of the man's muscles showed faintly. Gordan suspected the outfit was made to fit snugly. Most of the attire was brown and black traveling clothes; it wasn't at all what he had expected to see. The man had brown hair, cut just above the ears, which was slightly unkempt. His eyes were a golden brown, and Gordan swore that they could see right through you. All in all, his lord appeared to be no more than a strong traveler. In all his years of service, this was the first time Gordan had ever glimpsed the man behind the shadows.

He looked absolutely drained.

Between the messy hair and the sagging shoulders, the man Gordan had come to serve under seemed to be exhausted. He couldn't figure out why. As far as he was aware, the Lord of Negalia had not left his chambers for days.

"What news do you bring?" If the man was indeed as tired as he looked, Gordan would never have guessed it if he had only heard his voice. It was as commanding and powerful as ever. It was enough to send shivers through his lean body.

"Our officers have been sorting through a number of conflicting messages coming from our forces on the front lines. I haven't had the chance to piece it all together yet, but from what I can tell, our forces in the north have successfully retaken much of the ground we lost. All of the messages have said that." Gordan ran his fingers through his blond hair. "The conflicting part is how they did so. Of the two main reasons we keep seeing, most say that they routed the rebels and forced them into retreat. However, there have been reports that the rebels deliberately left the area without putting up much of a fight."

"And you suspect a trap."

He nodded his head slowly. "Yes. Unfortunately, there's not much we can do. If we stand our ground, we could be slaughtered. However…"

"If we leave the area, the rebels will know that we suspect something, and we will also lose the territory we just retrieved," the lord said with a sigh. "I understand. Leave the men there and plan for an ambush."

"Sire, I know how important retaking that sector was to your plans. I was the one that ordered the attack that lead to this situation. If you feel punishment is in order, I am the one who deserves it." Gordan knelt down on the stone floor, his expression grim.

To his surprise, his lord chuckled with sincere amusement. "Do you really think I would do such a thing? Especially to you, my most trusted of servants?"

Gordan lifted his head back up. "… Thank you for your mercy, my lord."

"Mercy? I have no mercy for those that incur my wrath. What have you done to deserve punishment?" the lord asked.

"I failed you with my order to attack, and I know that you don't take failure lightly."

"… Ah, I see." The lord rubbed his chin. "You've heard the rumors going around concerning my executions of several of our men while you were away…" Gordan nodded. "Very well. I have a pressing matter to attend to, so you may leave now. But keep this in mind: appearances are just as important as the actions you take." With a wave of his hand, the Lord of Negalia indicated he was to leave. "You never saw me like this," he added.

Gordan rose to his feet and bowed deeply. "I shall remember that, sire." He backed away several steps before turning and striding out of the chamber. The lord watched him go, a somewhat pleased grin escaping his cold, hard demeanor.

"… Perhaps I've become a little too convincing these days…"

I can't believe I'm doing this… Damian thought as he rounded another corner. Ahead of him was Kathryn. It had already been an hour since they infiltrated the fortress where the captain's crew was being held prisoner, and Damian wished he could just run back out. That option wasn't available to him, though, partly because he had lost track of where they were countless turns ago. Kathryn would likely kill him if he even tried. Ann's strengthening presence was sorely missed, but Damian knew she was probably safer back aboard the ship than she could ever be with him. Roaming the passages of an unfamiliar enemy stronghold was the worst possible scenario he could think of, and he was in the middle of it.

If nothing else, he was thankful that he wasn't completely alone. The thought of being lead around by a relative stranger was slightly unnerving, but Kathryn was incredibly skilled in the art of stealth. So far, they hadn't needed to confront any of the guards in the fortress. It made the situation easier to handle for Damian, as he had no desire to be forced to kill. The thought of murdering another person disgusted him. The battle on Calnoir only served to heighten that disgust.

"Hey! Pay attention!" Kathryn whispered. "We don't want to be snuck up on from behind! Don't make me regret bringing you along!"

Damian gulped. It was true; he wasn't paying attention to the passages behind them a few moments ago. He was too worried about what was around the next corner: three axe-wielding soldiers standing guard at the entrance to the third floor.

"How do we get past them?" Damian asked. Unlike the rest of the guards, these seemed to be stationed at the steps and not on patrol.

"Good question…" Kathryn checked her surroundings. According to her sources, the prison was on the third level. They would have to find another stairwell – her sources said there wasn't one – or somehow draw the guards away from their post. She pondered the situation briefly. "We need to signal the others early," she whispered. "There's no way around these guys."

Fortunately for her, they were standing right next to a window, through which the ocean was clearly visible below them. She grabbed a small wooden box from one of the many pockets on her vest and tossed it out the window. Before Damian could ask what she did, an explosion went off at the base of the fort.

"If those guards come, be ready to toss them out too," she quickly said. Damian nervously readied himself. When the halls remained silent, Kathryn peeked around the corner. The guards remained where they stood. She turned to Damian. "The rest of the crew should've heard that explosion. They'll begin their attack soon. Hopefully, when they do, those guys over there will leave."

Sure enough, the wait wasn't long. Within minutes, several more explosions went off, this time sending small shocks through the fort. The reaction was immediate. The guards at the stairwell abandoned their posts, along with several other men from the upper floors. None of the men came across the two infiltrators, choosing instead to follow a more direct route to the front of the fort.

"Now's our chance! Move!" she whispered, and move they did. They were at the stairs within seconds, and found no one at the top. "My crew won't be able to hold their ground for long. We have to find the prison cells now." Damian had no problem with that. The sooner they were out, the better.

The party of two soon discovered the third floor consisted largely of open rooms. It made finding the right path to the prison much easier, but it left them quite visible. They narrowly avoided being seen many times through sheer luck, and had to duck under various tables a few times when groups of soldiers raced through the room.

Damian clutched the front of his head after a particularly rushed dive for cover led to him sliding into a metal pole. The effort it took him to keep quiet until the latest in the line of soldiers passed through the room was enormous. Kathryn formed an amused smirk when she saw the face he made from the pain.

"I think they're gone again. Let's go," she said.

The rest of the soldiers were apparently on the lower floors, as there were no more interruptions in their search for the prison area. They passed by a window and paused. Clangs of metal against metal rang clearly through the otherwise calm breeze outside. The diversion was working. Kathryn pulled Damian away from the window. Time was short, and they had no time to waste on listening to the battle.

It took no more than a few minutes longer for Kathryn to locate the entrance to the prison. "Hey, you!" she called to the guard standing just beyond the locked door. "We're needed at the front!"

"But the prisoners--"

Kathryn cut off his protest. "We've got more important concerns right now! C'mon, move it!"

The guard grumbled and headed for the door. "I don't see why I'm needed, I'm not even trained for battle yet. That's why I'm here." He unlocked the door and stepped out. "Why can't you people han… Hey! You're not--hugh!"

Kathryn removed the dagger she embedded in the heart of the man. He breathed his last on the ground, blood pooling around him.

"Did you really have to do that?" Damian said. His eyes were fixated on the growing pool of blood. As much as he wanted to, he couldn't look away; it was just so awful to him.

"Yes. Guard the entrance. I'll go get my men."

Damian obediently stood in the doorway. At first there wasn't a sound to be heard, but then the silence gave way to hushed cries of joy from numerous people inside the prison. He would have smiled at the prospect of getting back to the ship, and in turn getting back to Ann, but he was preoccupied with something that caught his attention.

Deep within him, there was a twinge of urgency. He felt something in the back of his mind stirring. He couldn't figure out what was causing it. Damian swung his head around, trying to make sense of what he was feeling. The feeling grew in intensity as he turned around. Suddenly, he felt it spike when he looked down the hallway leading deeper into the prison. An urge to race down that hallway washed over his whole being. Whatever was causing the sensation, it was coming from somewhere inside the prison. He peered into the dark passageway for what seemed like forever before turning his back on it.

Damian heard the crash of metal as Kathryn and the newly-freed men dislodged another cell door. Jeez, can't they keep the noise down a bit? They'll alert everyone to us! Although the prison entrance gave him a clear view of anyone approaching him, it also had a downside: anyone approaching him would realize something was up before they were close enough for Damian to stop them. I hope they're all too busy with the fighting…

He couldn't tell how much time passed, but eventually Kathryn and the rescued prisoners came running up behind him. "We're done here. Let's get back to the ship," she said.

"Wait, captain." It was one of the former captives that spoke up. "I think there's another prisoner in here somewhere. We can't just leave whoever it is behind."

Damian's gaze shot back to the pitch black hallway. The feeling was still there, eating at the back of his mind. Somehow, he felt like he was being pulled towards the interior of the prison. It was tugging on him, urging him to go find something in there, like someone was calling him.

"Normally, I'd agree," Kathryn said. "But we're almost out of time. If we don't leave soon, the rest of the crew will be dead by the time we're back. We don't have time to go searching for--" Damian couldn't resist the urge any longer. He sprinted into the darkness. "Hey! Damian!" he heard Kathryn cry out behind him, but he didn't care. The sensation was too much for him to ignore.

The dark corridors of the prison were very confining. They branched off at several junctions, forcing Damian to choose a path. He relied on the sensation in the back of his consciousness to guide him. Soon, after a series of corners, an awful smell hit him like a ton of bricks. The stench seemed to get stronger the further along he ran. Nevertheless, he kept up his pace. The feeling was growing; whatever was causing it, it was getting closer.

Damian came to a stop. The passageway had disappeared, and with it, the sensation in his mind was gone. He found himself in the doorway of a small room with no other exit than the one he stood at. The stench, now recognizable as rotting flesh of some sort, seemed to be coming from somewhere inside. Ugh! Disgusting… I hope there's a good reason that I'm here… Damian thought to himself. He took a few steps into the room and scanned the walls. There was only enough light coming from a single window for him to recognize the place as part of the prison. There were four different cells in the room, but all of them seemed to be empty. Nothing except shadows appeared to inhabit this section of the prison.

Damian was just about ready to leave when something in the front cell coughed. Surprised, he cautiously stepped up to the cell bars and gazed in. At this range, he could make out the outline of a person curled up in one of the corners. The person did not bring his head up to look at Damian.

I've gotta get this guy outta here. Damian proceeded to feel around the stone walls of the room for a key to open the locks on the door. He found it nearby, only a couple feet away from the door itself. Slowly, he released the three different locks on the door and swung it open. Even when the door screeched to a halt, the person inside did not move at all.

"Hey…" he whispered, trying not to startle the person. "You all right?" No response. "Hey. Can you hear me?" Still nothing. Damian crouched down to eye level with the person, but her head was buried in her arms so he couldn't see her face. It's a girl… he thought with some surprise. Even more surprising to him was that she seemed familiar somehow. Is she alive? He wasn't sure if the young woman was just a body or alive until she took a visibly deep breath.

Satisfied that she was alive, he brought his hand up to her exposed cheek and, with as much care as he could manage, brushed her skin. It was clammy, but even so, it was still soft to the touch.

Finally, the young woman raised her head, her eyes still closed. She had been asleep. No way… It can't be… Slowly, she looked at him, and Damian found himself staring into her beautiful blue eyes. His heart skipped a beat. He knew those eyes.

"… Laura…?" The girl's eyes widened. "Laura? Is that you?" They stared into each other's eyes, neither willing to look away. A silence befell the room. The woman's lips began to move, yet not a word was spoken. She lowered her knees to the ground and began to shiver.

"… Damian?" she choked. Tears formed in her eyes. Damian smiled, and so did she. In a rush of joy, she jumped onto Damian and started to weep. "Damian!" she sobbed. "I can't believe it! I thought I'd never see you again!"

Damian wrapped his arms around her. "Laura… I'm sorry. I'm sorry I didn't find you sooner. I missed you so much…" The tears were already streaming down Laura's cheeks, and now tears began to form in Damian's eyes. He longed to hold her forever, to never let go. They sat in the comfort of each other's arms until Damian regained his senses. He took her by the arms and looked straight into her tear-stained eyes.

"We need to leave. Now."

The entire town center was deserted. Stores were closed and everyone was staying indoors. It did not surprise Jaina in the least. A snowstorm dumped almost two feet of snow on the town the previous night. There were still flurries floating down from the cloudy sky. Her walk down the central street was slowed by the deep snow she had to trudge through. The long blue dress she wore dragged across the snowy surface.

She shivered. Her dress was not made for the cold weather. Even with the brown jacket she brought with her, the cold was absolutely brutal. This kind of freezing cold would have kept many of the residents inside regardless of the snow. Hugging herself, Jaina made her way to one of the many shops lining the marketplace. It was locked, and the shopkeeper appeared to have left before the storm hit, but she knew better; the snow around the door was dug out. She rapped on the door. There wasn't an immediate response, so she tried again. She heard footsteps from inside stumbling towards the door.

"Who in the world would be out in this weather?" someone from inside mumbled. "Yeah, who is it?"

"Jaina," she said.

A latch unhooked and the door swung open. Standing in the doorway was a man. "Jaina!" There was a genuine look of surprise about him. "I wasn't expecting you to come. Not today. Come in, get out of the cold." He ushered Jaina into his shop.

"I always keep my promises, L'han, you know that." There was a fire raging in the back of the store with three simple chairs around it. She removed her jacket and took a seat. The warmth radiating from the fire was a very welcome feeling. "How are ya doing?"

L'han smiled as he sat down next to her. His bulky body, an odd mixture of muscle and fat, gave him a slightly plump figure. It didn't make him look unhealthy in any way, though. "As good as ever, I suppose. I haven't had any problems lately, business is really booming, and Patty is doing quite well with her recovery." He leaned back in his chair. "Can't say anything's gone wrong lately. How about you?"

Jaina averted her eyes. "Could be better."

L'han gave a hearty laugh. His unshaven, broad face, combined with his already grizzly appearance, served to amplify his warm presence. Jaina would have been mildly offended, but she knew why he was laughing. "Should've known. You're always saying something like that. You'd think by now you'd have a heart attack from all the stress you put yourself under!"

"I try to have some fun once in a while, don't worry." Jaina smiled broadly. "I have to, or you'll be on my ass all the time."

"You're damn right I'd be!" He chuckled. "Speaking of having fun, what's with the dress?" He eyed Jaina's slim figure. The dress was a beautiful one-piece that accentuated her curves very nicely. It was sleeveless, and the front covered her bosom nicely without covering so much up that it wasn't alluring. "It's certainly very beautiful on you, but it's not much of an outfit for the conditions outside."

"Thanks," she replied. "There was a dance last night. When the storm hit, we were stuck inside. We didn't dig ourselves out until this afternoon."

"And the jacket? I can tell that's not one of yours." Jaina's confused expression prompted him to continue. "It ain't blue."

Now it was Jaina's turn to laugh. "Oh, right, that. It was given to me before I left the dance. You know, so I wouldn't freeze before I got here."

"Ah… It was Dag's, wasn't it?" Jaina blushed, and he grinned broadly. "Thought so. Why didn't he come with you? I haven't seen him in ages."

"That's…" Her head hung low. Her cheerful demeanor evaporated. "Parts of the military were called to the front lines. Dag isn't officially a soldier, but…"

"… But he volunteered to go anyway." Jaina nodded, drawing a frown from L'han. "He would."

"The dance was held for the soldiers before they left. Sort of a farewell gift…"

L'han and Jaina sat in silence. The flames crackling in the fireplace began to slow, so L'han grabbed a bundle of small logs and threw them into the fire. With the flames roaring back to life, he turned back to the now saddened girl.

"Well, we can't sulk all day. Gotta stay positive!" He lifted himself out of his chair. "So, why'd you need to see me, anyway?"

"You've traveled the world. You've seen more things in your life than I'll probably ever see. You've learned so much about other people."

"And I've told you most of it. All about their ways of life and everything."

"Except… you've never mentioned anything about the legends and myths that they have."

L'han raised an eyebrow. "Why would you want to hear about those useless things? They aren't true." He walked over to a nearby stove and picked the kettle up off the top. "Tea?" he offered.

"Yes, please," Jaina kindly accepted his offer. She watched him pour the two glasses of tea. "You're right, they aren't true. But you should know there's a hint of truth in all of them."

"If you dig deep enough, maybe." He walked back to his chair and handed Jaina her glass. "But that still doesn't explain why you want to hear them. When you told me you wanted to see me about something, you sounded stressed, like it was urgent."

"You can't feel it either, can you?"

This caught L'han by surprise. He took a sip of his tea. During his thirty years traveling the world, he had grown quite attuned to nature. If anything happened in the world, nature was often the first to react, and he would eventually feel it himself. "The weather has been acting strangely as of late. And I have felt something in the wind recently… Nothing specific, though. Nothing particularly bothersome." He sat back down on his chair and scooted it closer to Jaina. "You think there's trouble brewing aside from the war?"

"Yeah. There's been something at the edge of my senses for a while now, but I can't figure out what it is. But it feels… old. Ancient."

The connections began to form in L'han's head. "I see…" He gulped down the rest of his tea and set the glass aside. "Have you consulted the sages?"

"Yeah, they feel it too, but they don't know any more than me." She sipped her tea slowly. "It started off weak and didn't change much, but lately it's been getting stronger every day."

L'han sighed. He knew better than to second-guess Jaina. Their past experiences taught him that far too many times. He glanced out the window; the snow was starting to come down harder again. "I'm not sending you back home tonight if it doesn't stop snowing soon. It's too far a walk."

"I hope I won't be intruding on anything if I have to spend the night here," Jaina said.

"Don't worry about it," he said, smiling. "It'll give me an excuse to get away from my work."

Jaina sipped the last of her tea. "Thanks. I knew I could count on you."

Kathryn leaned around the corner. From her position, she could see any soldiers that might come their way. Still clear, she thought. We've been lucky so far. She turned back to her men standing behind her. "See anything?" she asked the one furthest away.

"Nothing." The man had a gruff voice to compliment his muscular body.

Kathryn sighed. Against her better judgment, she was waiting for Damian to return from wherever he ran off to. When he first disappeared, her first thoughts were of betrayal, but something stopped her from immediately taking her men and escaping the fortress. She wondered if it was guilt. Guilt about leaving an innocent young man in an enemy stronghold? Guilt about even bringing him in the first place? She didn't know. The situation was getting too dangerous, however, and there would be little choice but to leave him behind. She grimaced at the thought of him being captured. I should've sent someone after him… Too late now.

At that moment, Kathryn heard footsteps coming from within the prison. It sounded like there were two people, and they were running. She drew her daggers. If he betrayed us, I'll take his head off! Fortunately, her fears appeared to be unfounded, as when Damian ran into view, he was followed by a young woman. She appeared to be in bad shape; her skin appeared pale even at such a distance, and she seemed exceedingly exhausted. Her long, brown hair was dirty and matted to her head. It didn't even wave much in the air when she ran.

"Why the hell did you run off like that?" Kathryn yelled out at Damian. "We were about to leave you!"

"Sorry, sorry… I just had this feeling, and…" Damian said as he ran up to her. He shook his head and abandoned any attempts at excuses. "This is--"

Kathryn stopped him. "Introductions later, kid. We don't have time." She was already moving before she even finished speaking. Her men followed without a word.

Damian took Laura's hand in his. He was still horrified with how frail she felt. "Can you keep going?" Weakly, she nodded. "C'mon, we can't fall behind."

Damian almost had to pull Laura to get her moving again. They fell in line with the men and tried to stay out of their way. Kathryn seemed to be leading them back to their entry point. It worried Damian; getting from the boat to the "entrance" involved scaling a large cliff. He hoped Laura had enough strength to make it down herself.

Laura stumbled at the bottom of the third floor staircase. Damian caught her just before she hit the ground. She was breathing heavily. She's too weak… we need to slow down… The rest of the group had no intention of doing so, even though they did stop to wait for her to get back up. "Come on," one of the men said to them. It wasn't said in a demeaning way, but Damian got the feeling that they felt she was a liability. He looked down at her again.

"You can't keep going like this." It wasn't a question; he knew it was true. His resolve to save her grew. Not knowing if he even had the strength to do it, Damian hoisted Laura onto his back. Laura whispered a thank you into his ear, and he let himself smile for a second. "Hold on tight," was his reply.

The group continued moving very quickly with as little sound as they could manage. Damian had some trouble keeping up with Laura's extra weight on his back, but he gritted his teeth and pushed himself harder. He needed to let Laura save her strength for descending the cliff.

Without the guards roaming the halls, the trip back to their entry point only took a few minutes. The entrance Kathryn made earlier, a hole in the wall just barely large enough for a person to slip through, seemed to have gone unnoticed. The sounds of a fierce battle out on the ocean drifted through it. Damian put Laura down on the floor and stretched his back.

"Hurry up and get out, now! One person on the rope at a time!" Kathryn ordered. "The rocks are slick, so don't be stupid when climbing down!" She pulled one of the stronger men aside. "You go right before me and the kids. You'll need to carry the girl down the cliff. There's no way she's gonna be able to do it herself."

"As you wish, captain."

Before long, the whole group of former prisoners was outside safely with the exception of the one man. "Hey, can you at least get down the rope on your own?" Kathryn asked Laura. If she couldn't the man would have to carry her down that as well, which was a more dangerous situation than she would like to put either of them in.

Laura nodded. "Yeah, I think I can do that." Her voice was weak, but she stood up on her own. It was good enough for Kathryn.

"Good," she said with a smile. She turned back to the man. "Head on down, she'll be right behind you."

The man was halfway through the opening when the wall suddenly exploded. The blast knocked Kathryn, Damian and Laura off their feet. They landed a couple yards away from where they were just moments before. Shards of shattered stone rained down around them as they lay there stunned. Kathryn was the first to recover from the shock.

"Son of a bitch!" she managed to yell through her coughing. The blast had kicked up a lot of dust, obscuring her vision and making it hard to breathe. "Is everyone all right?" She spotted Damian's figure through the dust as he got to his knees.

"Yeah, we're fine. A little shaken up, though," he managed to say through his coughing fit. His one arm was wrapped around Laura's waist; she was still too dazed from the explosion to sit up on her own. "What the heck happened?" The dust slowly started to clear, and he caught a glimpse of the newly demolished wall behind him. The whole section had collapsed on itself, blocking their way out. "Shit…" he muttered.

Kathryn seconded that feeling, but not for the same reason. Her attention was fixated in the opposite direction. The dust had cleared enough for her to see the end of the hallway lead back the way they came. Standing there were three people. The two flanking the one in the middle were fortress soldiers. They wore thick metal armor, very simple yet effective in design, and carried spears taller than themselves. The third person, a woman dressed in more elaborate clothing, stepped forward. She wore a long, blood red cape over a dark blue chest armor piece. The clothing underneath was also a dark blue and fit loosely over her body. There was also a sword hung from the belt on her right side. The woman's long, sinister face was framed by her long, blonde hair that she kept up in a single flowing ponytail. What caught Damian by surprise, however, was the fiery red aura that surrounded the woman.

"Well, well, well…" the woman began with a smile that sent chills down Damian's spine. "It's been a long time, Kathryn… a very long time…"