SIX

Floating. Gently rising up, then falling down. Silence. A cold, numb feeling.

"Hey." A voice, soft and quiet. Tugging him out of his dreamy state of rest. He didn't want to wake up. But the voice persisted.

"Wake up, Dash."

At last, his eyes opened, his eyelids feeling very heavy. He was lying on his back, in a small boat, his head propped up. In front of him, rowing, was a blurred figure.

"Moishra?" His tongue felt thick and slippery. He had trouble speaking.

"You're awake. Good. We're nearing the Misty Flats. After we got swept away in the Misty River, we lost the Archers, thank-"

"Moishra? Why do I feel so - so numb?" Dash couldn't even feel the lower half of his body.

"Oh." Moishra looked at him, then swept his gaze down to his leg. "Sometime during your. . .swim, you must've hit something. The shaft got pushed deeper into your leg. About two more inches, I think. I had to rewrap it. And since you're going to have to stand on the board again, I poured some mashed Jikongai leave mixture down your throat."

"How - how much?"

"The rest of it. Hopefully, it's enough to get you to Shirol'ka."

"Oh." Dash struggled into a sitting position, blinked to clear the blur from his vision. "Why do I have to use the board it we have the boat?"

"Because, the Misty Flats is like a slough, except its basically really thick mud. A boat would get only a couple feet before bogging down. That's why you're going to float above it."

"What about you?"

Moishra dug underneath his wooden seat, and pulled out a long, flat piece of wood. "I'll use a couple of these."

Dash stared at it, not understanding. Moishra gave a small smile, seeing his confusion. "You'll see. Meanwhile, rest while you can. Once we reach the Flats, there is no stopping, no resting."

Dash gave a sluggish nod, and fell back into a numbed state. He was glad that the leaves had numbed his leg, but they had numbed his entire body, even his mind. Gradually, however, as the effect of the leaves began to wear off, he was able to think clearly, and feel the tips of his fingers and toes.

At that time, they were able to see a low-lying fog ahead, extending in both directions for a long, long ways, cloaking everything in its path with a thick mist. The Misty Flats.

"Here we are," Moishra said. "This is going to be tricky. Can you stand?" Dash gripped the edges of the boat, and grimacing with the effort, pulled his feet beneath him. He rose shakily, his legs weak, but holding. Moishra lifted the Strikster board from the bottom of the boat, and activated it. It floated in the air, between the two of them, about a foot off the bottom of the boat. Balancing on his trembling bad leg, Dash raised his left foot, and stepped onto the board. Quickly, before his other leg gave away, he shifted his weight to the other, rose up, so that he was standing. As he straightened, the board rose a up into the air.

"Don't go to far, once we're in the mist," Moishra warned. "If you stray more than a few feet, the mist will swallow you up, and I may never find you again. Ever. Understand? If you get lost in the mist, you may never get out alive."

Dash nodded, eyes wide as Moishra's words sunk in. He'd have to keep very close to the man. He watched curiously as Moishra pulled out two long and wide flat boards, and strapped them to his feet. Thus prepared, he rowed the boat forward until the water thickened and blackened until the boat no longer moved. Then he stepped overboard, and stood on the thick, wet surface. Dash stared. Moishra wasn't sinking! The boards he wore on his feet kept him from sinking down beneath the surface!

Moishra looked at the mist, which was very close now. It swirled and heaved, as though it were alive, and seemed to reach out to engulf the two intruders.

"This is it, boy. Once we're inside, no talking. Keep close. There are strange creatures inside, things you don't want to find you."

"Creatures?" Dash gulped.

"Just rumors," Moishra glanced up at him, one side of his mouth turning upwards. "And you never know which ones are true. Let's go." And he moved forward, stepping forward with a strange sliding motion. The boards slid smoothly and silently over the muck, and Dash had to lean more forward to keep up. The more forward they went, the thicker the mist surrounded them, and soon, despite the fact that he was floating right at Moishra's shoulder, Dash could barely see him. He swallowed hard, realizing that if he strayed even three feet away, he'd lose him. He concentrated hard on where he was going, never taking his eyes from the man.

They travelled for what seemed hours, in utter silence. Every now and then, a strange, eerie whistling sound filled the air, and Dash shivered. He wanted to ask Moishra what it was, and if he had ever travelled this way before. He even wondered if the man heard them, because when they sounded, he went on as if he hadn't even heard them. Another came then, seemingly closer than before, filling the air with its breathy, high note. Dash shivered, and looked down at Moishra. The man had slowed for a moment, glancing around. He looked up, met the boy's eyes, and held one finger to his lips. Then with a quick gesture, he move on, sliding the boards over the muck with a careful, even cautious movement.

What was going on? What was happening? Dash began to feel uneasy. He didn't like this white, swirling world of mist. He couldn't see anything, couldn't touch anything. He preferred the noisy, dirty city grounds, a place where he knew how to live, how to survive. A place that he knew as home.

As he looked uneasily around, he thought he saw a gray-white shape move in the mist around him. His heart began to pound, and his hands went to his waist, where the two blades that Moishra had recovered and given back to him where. Something touched his foot, and he nearly fell off backwards with fright.

Looking down in a near panic, he realized that it was Moishra. The man pointed to Dash's bad leg, and looked at him with a raised eyebrow. He was asking how his leg was. In truth, he was able to feel it now, a dull ache, but the leaves were still doing their work and held back most of the pain.

Dash gave him a thumbs up. It was good. For now. Moishra nodded, his eyes worried. He looked around anxiously, and at that moment, a loud, ear-piercing, breathy whistle filled the air around them.

Moishra stopped dead in his tracks, just as a black rope-like object with shiny square triangle-like shapes flew out of the mist, and wrapped around his chest and torso, pinning his arms. Moishra was pulled backwards, but not before he yelled, "Up!" The next instant, there was silence, nothing but swirling mist. Moishra had disappeared, just like that.

A faint wispy sound - another rope-like thing, coming out of the mist. But Dash moved too quickly. He jerked his body to the right, and the hover board responded by darting to the right. The black rope fell short, and Dash straightened, making himself as stiff as he could. And he shot straight up into the air. The sudden and quick climb made him dizzy, and then, he was clear.

All around him he saw a clear, brilliant blue sky, and he was taken back with the beauty. Below him was the wispy mist. He floated above it, staring about in awe and astonishment. And far off, just poking up out of the misty fog, was a black rocky mountain tip. And instinctively, he knew. That black tip was attached to the island of Shirol'ka.

He floated there, most of his weight on his left leg, the other apart, and at an angle to the other. The arrow shaft stuck out of his leg five inches, and surrounding it were several leather strips, wrapped tightly around his leg, on top of the worn, nearly shredded brown trousers. His dark brown tunic was torn, having been through a lot. Around his tanned neck, one could see a leather cord, which disappeared beneath his tunic. His face had changed. It was tanned, hard and angular, having grown out of its boyish look. It had always looked somehow young, on the streets of the city, but now, he looked older than his sixteen years. He had been through a lot, and his unnaturally, brilliantly green eyes showed it. His nearly white hair had grown a little, and now it brushed against the sides of his cheeks. He was no longer the frightened street kid, who jumped at his own shadow. He was a man in his own way now, who had learned how to stand up for himself, how to look another man in the eye without flinching.

As he stood there on the floating board, gazing around at the strange new world, three small figures rose up out of the mist, standing on their own boards. Dash stared at them, stunned at their sudden arrival. As they came closer, and began to form a circle around him, at a distance away, he noticed that they were wearing all black. The only skin that showed was that around their eyes. The Shadowguard Ninjai.

He could feel their eyes on him, studying him. As they circled, they slowly came closer. Dash narrowed his eyes. What should he do? Should he tell them what he wanted, or should he run?

They made the decision for him. They each held out their arms at ninety-degree angles to their bodies, and long blades slid out. His eyes widened.

"Wait!" he cried. But they all leaned forward, blades held straight behind them, eyes intent on him, and swooped in for their prey.

Dash dropped to a crouch, and fell straight down into the mist. He'd take his chances with the strange ropes with the silver triangles. Those Ninjai guys looked like they were ready to cut him apart!

He dropped down into the mist until he could see the dark muck just below, and whirled to his left. Leaning forward, he shot straight ahead, the mist forming droplets on his face as he sped along. He heard nothing, but that didn't stop him from turning sharply around, and rising a bit in the air. As he whooshed along, one of those ropes shot out above him. Dash twisted violently to avoid it, and found himself performing a loop, going upside down and over. And the board stuck to his feet, and brought him safely straight up.

He let out a whoop of glee and he twisted himself into a climbing spiral. Once again, he rose above the mist, and climbed higher than he had before. This time, he was able to see where the mist ended, and he glided toward it, keeping an sharp eye around him.

No black forms on boards, no ropes. But he still wasn't prepared for what came. Arrows. From the Archers. At least a dozen arced in the air, climbing up, curving in mid-air to head straight for him. How had they found him? Where were they? He twisted sharply, performing a tight loop, then fell straight backwards, and down, only to come swooping back up the minute he touched the mist. All arrows fell harmlessly back into the mist.

Where had they come from?! He travelled just above the mist, eyes roving all over, watching, waiting. At last, another barrage of dark shafts came, this time from just beyond the Misty Flats. How those Archers saw him, he never knew, much less how their aim could be so close, so deadly. Once again, he performed air acrobatics, this time, cutting it dangerously close. One razor-tipped arrow grazed his cheek, cutting a fine line that bled a little.

By now, the leaves had all but worn off, and his leg began to burn and sear with a nearly unbearable pain. It would only grow worse, he knew, but he clenched his teeth, and flew on. He had to find Moishra. Where was he?

"Moishra!" No answer. Dash began to feel worried, and scared. He was all alone. Moishra was gone. Kaya. Her face filled his mind. Her big purple eyes, twinkling, her full mouth parted in laughter, her little nose wrinkled. . . "No!" He pushed her from his mind. He shouldn't - couldn't think about her. Not now. Still his heart wrenched at her memory, and he took a deep breath, erased that memory. She was gone. And so was that part of him that had loved her.

Something dark disappeared into the mist below him, and he whirled around, saw nothing. It was gone. What - ? No time to think! Arrows! On fire! Again! Once again, his hands were a blur, moving fast, and next thing he knew an arrow was in his hands, it's flaming tip inches from where he held it.

And then something wrapped around his left foot. Startled he looked down, and saw one of those ropes. The little triangles dug in, keeping it secured tightly. No! Too late to do anything. The tug came, pulling his foot off the board. For a moment, his bad leg held his whole weight. But then, pain erupted, like shooting flame, and it just collapsed. With a startled cry, he dropped the arrow, and fell off his board, and down, down, into the mist, falling faster and faster. . .

He was going to land in the dark, murky muck! And he'd sink down into it, be sucked in to his death. He was going to die!

"Oomph!" Both of his arms were suddenly grabbed, just about pulled out of their sockets as his fall was halted. He looked up, and went cold. Latched onto each arm, was a Shadowguard Ninja, standing lightly on their hover boards. Both held easily to his arms with one hand, holding him between them in mid-air. They looked down at him, their eyes showing no emotion.

The two Ninjai leaned forward, and floated through the mist with a quiet, confident air. Dash had no doubt that they knew exactly where they were going. Minutes later, the mist thinned somewhat, and he saw a massive dark shape grow before his eyes. He stared at it with wide eyes, when suddenly, without notice, the two Ninjai holding him let go!

He only had time to emit a startled "Wha-?" before he hit the ground hard. He cried out as his leg seemed to burst into flame, searing with intense pain. He lay where he was, clenching his teeth tightly, and emitting a low moan.

Two dark figures were now standing before him, looking down him. To Dash, they were mere blurs through his tearing up eyes. He was in too much pain to take much notice.

"Get up." One commanded in a low voice.

Dash didn't even try. "I. . .can't. . ."

They looked at each other, then bent down, each grabbing one arm, and hoisting him roughly to his feet.

"Why have you come?" The voice was cool and demanding.

"To - to see the. . . .Shadow. . .," Dash gasped. The two stared down at him. One narrowed his eyes.

"Why?" he growled.

"A message. . ." Dash was swaying, struggling to stay conscious. He had to get the message to Shadow, and he was so close.

"A message? Give it to me."

"No!" The boy's fierce cry startled even the Ninjai. "I have to. . .give it to. . .the - the Shadow alone."

A long moment of silence. Finally, the two dark-clad men nodded. Gripping the boy tightly, they marched him forward through the mist. Good thing they had such a tight hold on him; otherwise, he would've collapsed.

Soon enough, a large, black building loomed through the mist. The only door was guarded by two alert Ninjai, who eyed the threesome carefully before letting them in. Once inside, the air was clear, free from the mist, and Dash looked around in tired surprise. He had no energy to fight the Ninjai, he let them half-carry him, while he observed the inside of the building.

The place was almost entirely black. Black walls, with a black, polished stone floor with gray lines of granite. The walls had black pillars carved out of black rock, while the roof was jagged and uneven. The whole building had been carved from the black mountain! At the far end of the big room, a small crowd of Ninjai where gathered. Dash was startled to see a familiar figure there.

"Moishra!"

At the sound of his low cry, the Ninjai fell silent, and they all turned. Moishra was there indeed; he fit in with his all-black clothing. His eyes widened when he saw the half-conscious boy, looking more dead than alive. He strode quickly over.

"Dash!' He looked up at the boy's guards. "It's all right; the boy's with me." The two Ninjai looked at each other, than at Moishra. At last, they gave a quick nod, releasing the boy and stepped back. Dash would've fallen to the ground, had not Moishra quickly stepped forward and caught him.

He held the boy by the shoulders, looked into his eyes. He did not like what he saw. The boys eyes were glazed. Worse, the boy was hot to the touch. If the shaft was not removed, he would most likely die.

"Come on, lad. Only a little bit longer," he murmured. Supporting him, Moishra led the boy over to the group of Ninjai. "Dash," he said quietly. "Meet the Shadow."

And in the midst of the Ninjai, a man stepped forward. He was the only one who did not wear a head covering. Dash looked up at him with a kind of an awe. This was it. This was the cause for the long journey. The reason why he had pushed on. And the reason Kaya had died.

The man named Shadow was surprisingly young. In his mid-twenties. His black hair was spiky and short, and his strange dark gray eyes gleamed. The mouth in the tanned face was now curving upwards in a slight smile.

"Moishra tells me you have something to give me."

Speechless, Dash could only look at the man. The Shadow was looking at him, talking to him!

"Well?" The voice was not unkind.

Dash swayed, and Moishra steadied him.

"Are you all right?" The Shadow's voice carried concern.

"He carries a broken shaft in his leg," Moishra spoke quietly. "Has for the past four days." All eyes flickered down, and rested on the boy's leg. The Shadow looked up, met and held the boy's gaze.

"You are a brave one, lad. I am proud to have met you."

Dash nodded feeling strangely warm, then reached inside his shirt with trembling fingers. He pulled out the silver medal, the one he had carried with him for so long. He felt sorrowful to see it go; it seemed like a part of himself. He held it out to the Shadow, and watched as the man took it, turned it over, and snapped out the small piece.

He held it in his hand, and to everyone's astonishment, a screen of strange words appeared right above the tiny metal object, floating in midair! A hologram! Those things had been old technology before the war, but now, they were unimaginable things of wonder and amazement.

To Dash's surprise, the Shadow's face went soft as he read the words, and a single tear formed in his eye. He unashamedly let it fall, as he murmured one word. "Jude."

But moments later, his face hardened and his eyes darkened. He looked up at everyone.

"Jude has given his life trying to deliver this message, and it was a worthy cause. For this message contains terrible, and wonderful news. Men of the Shadowguard Ninjai, we march to war!" The last words seemed to come from far away, for Dash, and the next thing he heard, as the world seemed to swirl around him, was the far away shout of, "The boy! Look at the boy!" And then, there was nothing.

X X X

He paused, looking around at the city, his home. He ignored the stares. Maybe it was because he was standing on a hover board, or because he openly wore the Shadowguard medallion. In any case, it was no matter. He was home.

After he had fainted, he had woken up lying on a soft, warm bed, buried beneath several covers. A quiet voice had asked him how he felt, and he looked up to see the Shadow himself sitting by his bedside!

Dash had been utterly astounded, and the Shadow had chuckled with amusement. After a while of talking, the Shadow had asked of Dash would like to be his messenger. If he could get through all those Kal'ukar, he get through anything.

Dash had eagerly nodded, and that was that. Just before he left, he remembered the message, and asked what was. The Shadow had looked gravely down at him, and only said, "I won't lay such a burden on your shoulders, Dash, but I will tell you this: I fear that there will be another war, between us and the Kal'ukar. Their numbers grow rapidly, while our few so slowly. It will happen soon, and we need to get more Ninjai."

And now, here he stood, the Shadow's last words running through his mind. Another war! He looked around at the sad, half-ruined city, and felt that the world could not withstand another such war.

"Who're you?" Three street boys looked up at him with awe. As he looked down, Dash couldn't believe it. These three were part of the group that lived in the same area as he did in the streets, and had taken fun in chasing him down and scaring him off from the best food sites. They had taken pleasure in the way he had fled in terror.

A slow smile spread across his face. Time to turn things around. Obviously, they didn't recognize him. Well! He soon see about that!

"I am the Messenger to the Shadow," he said quietly, "But my name. . .is Dash."

THE END


A/N: Well, that's the end of that. I don't have any more written that continue on this story. Since Lost Voice is still in the writing, I'll be a bit slow in updating it. But in the meantime, if you wish, I have a different story that I could put up. It's quite different, but sorta similar to this one, if that makes sense. Anyway, thanks for reading, and hope you liked. Ta!