By Jane Bishop

Chapter 1

Blue-grey hair swirled wildly as Aileen raced over the barren terrain of the Southern Plains. Heedless of the sun beating down on her exposed skin and the stitches in her side, she ran, her breath coming out in short bursts. Following her was a man in a crimson cloak, his green eyes flashing danger, his red hair ruffled by the wind. Both traveled at speeds faster than should have been humanly possible. To the casual eye, it seemed they soared above the ground, their boots barely touching it with each step they took.

"How far?"

"Not long now," Aileen replied. "We're close."

"Mmm." The man snuck a glance over his shoulder, not slowing his pace at all. "We'd better hurry."

What scenery there was flew past in a blur as the distance was quickly swallowed up by the two runners. The tall grass seemed to part before them before swinging back into place once they passed. All that could be seen were vivid flashes of white and scarlet in a sea of seemingly endless green. In no way did the pair show signs of slowing; to do so would be losing precious time, time that could be used to their advantage, time that they were, unfortunately, very short of.

"Lance! There!"

Aileen pointed. In the distance, there came into view a high defensive wall. Once upon a time, it must have been very impressive – it rose, proud and unwavering, out of the ground, interrupting the flat, smooth terrain and calling out a silent challenge to all who might consider trying to breach it. However, that challenge was an empty one. Time and neglect had eroded away at the carefully cut and fitted blocks of stone, causing some sections to collapse in a heap of useless rubble. To further add to the process of decay, plants had taken root within the cracks of the once mighty wall, some of these withered and long dead while others still flourishing.

An empty hole marred the barrier near the middle, that hole once holding a great wooden gate which had long since rotted away. It was through this that the pair dashed, the sound of their footsteps reverberating off the worn, ancient stone. In the blink of an eye, they emerged through the other side and started forward into the ruined city. Aileen snuck a look at the buildings as she ran, now just hollow skeletons, the stark windows seeming to watch her with disdain. She could almost imagine the ghosts of the long-dead residents of the city peering out at her. In fact, she wouldn't be surprised if there were ghosts in the city. They would be inside, however, and they wouldn't venture out. Not in the daylight.

The duo's pace barely slowed as they made their way through the broken, neglected cobble-stoned streets. Weeds poked through the cracks, a testament to life's strong grasp in any location with even a miniscule amount of promise. Once or twice, they passed a tree growing where a tree ought not to be. In the end, it didn't matter, though. The city was forfeit. It belonged to no one but nature and the few lonely spirits that may have resided there, its only purpose to serve as a lonely reminder of long-gone days of grandeur.

Aileen wove a crazy zigzag pattern through the streets, concentrating hard. To decode and memorize a map was one thing. To make use of that memorization was another. However, it wasn't hard to find the way as the city was laid out in a very orderly fashion. Soon, she and Lance came to another stone wall, smaller than the perimeter one and more ornately decorated. However, it wasn't something to be trifled with. As she approached, the hairs on the back of her neck prickled as she picked up the traces of the ancient magic at work around this wall. Someone had gone through great lengths so ensure the security of whatever lay behind the long-abandoned barrier, casting layer upon layer of defensive spells upon the stones. The closer they got, the more she could sense the power behind the sorcery, which, ancient though it was, would still prove more than lethal to someone who didn't know what they were doing.

"This is it," confirmed Lance, finally slowing down. "The keyhole should be right…" He withdrew a small talisman from his pocket and strode up to the wall, scrutinizing the carved and relatively intact stones closely. After a moment, he seemed to find what he was looking for, a small hole in the wall, and pressed the talisman into it. Nothing happened for a moment, but then the wall started to shimmer and a door materialized before their very eyes where a second ago there had only been nothing.

Silently, they watched as the doors swung open, revealing a barren courtyard and a short path leading to a small, mausoleum-like building. It was this structure that they started toward. About halfway there, more ancient magic awoke, sensing the presence of the two intruders. It slid over them, a strange, alien presence that sent more chills down Aileen's spine. Then, seemingly satisfied that the pair were not a threat, the magic receded and became dormant once more.

The white-clad woman knelt by the entrance to the building and began weaving complicated signs in the air with her hands. Meanwhile, he red-clad counterpart stood silently behind her, his eyes closed in concentration as his mind probed their surroundings. A faint breeze ruffled his hair and caressed his face; he tasted the scents on it, analyzed the information that he picked up from it. His mind roamed far beyond his body, back over the plains that he and his companion had just crossed, searching for a sign, any sign at all, that pointed to… pointed to…

"Damn!" His eyes snapped open suddenly and one hand reached for his sword faster than the blink of an eye. Not stopping with her furious hand weaving, Aileen's brow furrowed.

"Damn what?" she asked, not looking away from her work.

"They're closer than I thought," he said. "They've been masking their presence."

"How long until they get here?"

"About three minutes. Possibly less if they push hard."

"That's not much time you know," said Aileen, and she doubled her efforts.

Lance waved his hand and the talisman came flying toward him from the open doorway of the wall. He caught the small object easily and watched as the doorway shimmered and once more turned into cold, solid stone. After storing it back in his pocket, he too began to thread together spells that could be laid over the preexisting ones, spells that could strengthen the defenses of the mysterious enclosure. At last he finished and felt as the magic slid quietly into place, the new mingling with the old.

"Done," came Aileen's voice, and with a noise of rock grinding on rock, the entrance opened to reveal a gaping hole leading into the darkness. "You first."

With a nod, Lance entered and descended down a flight of spiral stairs, vanishing from view. Aileen entered after him and with a few fleet hand motions, the slab of rock slid back into place, the light from the outside disappearing and everything being plunged into darkness.

Aileen reached out and placed her hand over the cool granite. As she did, a glowing rune flared to life on the polished surface and blazed merrily there, one more defense added to the multitude that now existed in this area. Then, satisfied with her work, the small blue-haired woman allowed herself a small smile of satisfaction and conjured a glowing orb of light before following her companion into the darkness – into the unknown…